Delicious oysters, poor shucking

A new study about the global condition of oyster reefs is causing a tremendous amount of uproar on the Internet. Over 100 news sites are reporting on the findings and many reputable sources are using alarming headlines:

“Oyster Reefs Are Vanishing From Overharvesting.” — The New York Times Green Blog
“Oysters Vanishing on Overharvesting, Disease, Researchers Say.” — Bloomberg
“Enjoy your shucking while it lasts… More than 85 per cent of their reefs have been lost due to overfishing, according to a new study.” – The Independent UK

Others are coming up with eyebrow-raising speculations:

“Oyster fans: slurp them up. They’re heading toward extinction.” — Stone Hearth Newsletter
“The Oyster Apocalypse Approaches!” — Eater
“Will Oysters Go Extinct Before We Can Eat Them All?” — The Awl
“Oysters at risk: Gastronomes’ delight disappearing globally” — The Science Blog
“For many people this news is absolutely devastating, especially the owners of raw oyster bars!” — Gather

To take matters even further, some are coming to distorted conclusions like:

“​Do you love oysters? Looks like you might have two choices:
1) Eat all you can now before they disappear for good.
2) Don’t eat them at all — for a while, at least — until the population rebounds.”

Don’t even get me started on the frantic jabber on Twitter about this topic.

While it is encouraging to see so many people concerned about the oysters, I am frustrated by both the lack of context that the public has been given as well as the media’s self-serving effort to sensationalize the issue. It is the responsibility of the press to inform the public, not to freak them out.

When Michael Beck and his global research team published Oyster Reefs at Risk study in BioScience (pdf), I can’t imagine that he ever had the intention of causing this much panic. I found the report to be very useful in understanding the current conditions of native oyster reefs; it’s a compelling piece for environmental conservation and I wholeheartedly agree with his recommendations for habitat protection and improved management. Where the report does not tread heavily is the impact these findings have on everyday oyster consumers. Given the academic nature of this research, the burden lies on the reader (or media) to determine how this piece fits into the bigger puzzle.

This is where I see most secondary news sources come to a fault. They make a giant leap in connecting the decline in global oyster reef to your favorite oysters vanishing from the raw bar. Perhaps it’s to drive more hits on a page or maybe it’s just a lack of understanding. Fortunately, this is not an accurate depiction of today’s oyster consumption trends.

I am not trying to downplay the importance of oyster reefs or diminish the need to scrutinize wild fishery management. I just want to put things into perspective so that unnecessary panic can be nipped at the bud. Here are three big things that need to be pointed out:

1. The majority of oysters that we eat today do not come from wild oyster reefs.

Rest assured that the next time you sit down for a dozen oysters on the half shell, you are probably not destroying the last remaining native oyster beds. According to Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, “Farmed oysters account for 95 percent of the world’s total oyster consumption. Most oyster farming operations are very well managed and produce a sustainable product.” Today’s most sophisticated aquaculture methods do minimal damage to the environment.

So keep calm and slurp on. You don’t have to gorge yourself silly or stop eating oysters them all together. Your favorite oysters will not be disappearing from the raw bars. In fact, by choosing to eat sustainable seafood products (such as farmed oysters), you are essentially voting with your (cocktail) fork for conservation. Every so often, you will encounter wild oysters on the menu and it probably won’t tell you which harvesting method was used. If you want to be dutiful about eating environmentally sustainable oysters, ask who the supplier (the original source, not the distributor) is and their method of harvest. Restaurant owners, chefs or buyers who are well versed with the product should know this information, but if no one seems to have a clue, it’s probably best to avoid the selection until you learn more.

2. Restoring the oyster reefs will be vital to our environment, but aquaculture is key to supplying to the world’s long-term oyster demand.

The oyster is an important keystone species, which means that despite their small size, they have the potential to greatly impact the environment that they live in. As the study points out under the Oyster reefs and ecosystem services section, “Native oyster reefs provide many ecosystem services including water filtration, food and habitat for many animals (e.g., fish, crabs, birds), shoreline stabilization and coastal defense.” Research has also shown that “lost habitat caused by declines in oyster reefs is also linked to broader drops in coastal biodiversity, which has both intrinsic and economic value.” So saving them is a no brainer, but not exactly for the reasons that many blogs advertise.

We cannot expect wild oyster reefs to sustain the world’s insatiable appetite for them. While there are still many fisheries in operation on the East and Gulf coasts, the ultimate goal is to evolve towards aquaculture. When you think about all the other foods that you eat–fruits, vegetables, meat, even fish–almost everything is farmed and oysters are no different. By farming oysters, we reduce the stress on wild oyster populations. Keep in mind that a farmed oyster does not taste any different than a wild oyster–the biggest difference is that their quality of life has been significantly improved; thanks to the TLC they get from farmers! On the other hand, saving oyster reefs could very well improve the bounty of other seafood that we enjoy. So helping restore oyster reefs and promoting oyster aquaculture is a two-prong solution to ensuring future generations of happy raw bar patrons.

3. The optimal path towards conservation and restoration is a gradual one: we need to take care not to disrupt economic stability.

Given the overwhelming benefits of oyster reef protection and aquaculture, you might ask, “why don’t we just do away with wild oyster harvesting entirely and rely on purely oyster farming?” Like most issues involving the environment, it is a fine balance between maintaining economic stability today and investing towards the future. Tommy Leggett of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates that there are roughly 400 Virginia and Maryland watermen who make part of their living off of the Bay’s wild shellfish. The oyster industry in the Gulf, the largest and healthiest reef in the US (despite the oil spill), still also depends mostly on wild harvest. Aggressive restrictions or banning it all together will cost thousands of jobs and sabotage the economic foundation that communities need in order to support conservation initiatives.

Efforts are being made to gradually move the industry away from wild harvests and towards aquaculture. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission provides oyster farming training to old-school watermen, which have been pretty successful according to Leggett. Meanwhile, new and unfamiliar faces are showing up in the business. Entrepreneurs from all kinds of backgrounds (finance, education, etc.) are setting up aquaculture shops in hopes to do a little good and make a little money while they’re at it.

I think that the oyster industry will undergo a big evolution in the next couple of decades: legacy methods of harvest will become limited to tourist demonstrations and aquaculture will become the next big investment opportunity. Hopefully conservation and restoration will go hand in hand with commercial development.

Ways on how you can help oyster restoration

1. Eat farmed oysters and other kinds of sustainable seafood. The Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Program has an extensive guide to eating seafood sustainably that you can access through their website or iPhone!

2. Donate to the Nature Conservancy, which runs a global Marine Conservation initiative. Part of their focus is to restore coastal habitats and develop better fishery and management practices. The report’s authors Michael Beck and Rob Brumbaugh are both part of this organization.

3. Get involved with your local or regional oyster conservation & restoration organization.

4. Ask your favorite oyster bar or seafood restaurant to participate in shell recycling programs.

5. Learn more about oysters in general by reading these great books:

  • The Living Shore by Rowan Jacobsen
  • A Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobsen
  • The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky