Perhaps a bit dramatic quote to begin a post, but I can say that oysters are the closest thing I have to a religion. I live, breath, and of course, eat all things oyster. It first started as a simple matter of taste. Oysters are delicious. But the further I delved into the world of oysters, the deeper the rabbit hole went (points for a Lewis Carroll/Walrus & The Carpenter reference? Maybe a little obvious.).
Oysters have been “unshellfishly” giving to mankind since our beginning. They have immensely impacted human culture, cuisine, and economy. Tribes of the Chesapeake relied on them as a staple food source, so much so that “Chesapeake” is derived from an Algonquin word meaning “Great Shellfish.” Romans notoriously feasted on dozen after dozen at their gluttonous culinary orgies. Native Americans in Ecuador and Peru used Spondylus, known as spiny oyster shells, as currency. Early English colonists often built their homes with tabby, a mixture of sand, water, lime, and crushed oyster shells. Whether denoting wealth with their nacre-covered pebbles adorning the necks of Victorian high society or giving Casanova his famed vivacity, oysters have been on the ends of our forks, close to our pockets, and in our hearts for some time now.
However, the true generosity of the oyster is best demonstrated in what they are naturally made to do: be the ecological lynchpins of the oceans. A single oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water daily. They remove harmful phytoplankton from the water, increase oxygen levels, water clarity, and accelarate dentrification. This allows aquatic plant life such as eel grass to thrive with more sunlight and oxygen. Several other species such as crabs and smaller fish depend on oyster reefs for habitat, smiliar to coral in the tropics. The presence of this healthy marine life trickles up to all the larger, predatory fish we are familiar with such as salmon and bass. Oyster reefs also serve as important breakwater barriers for our shores, preventing waves from washing away vital coastline. Basically, if you were building a healthy marine ecosystem, an oyster reef would be your foundation.
But, as history has taught us, humans really have a knack for destroying ecosystems, and oyster reefs have been one of the biggest victims. Worldwide, wild oyster beds are nearly extinct (note that this doesn't mean stop eating them, as most oysters we consume today are farmed or closely monitored at wild harvest). For us, specifically, the Bay Area once teemed with the native oyster, the Olympia, or Ostrea lurida. However, when the 49ers arrived, they quickly over fished the native oyster in a matter of decades. By the early 1900s, Olympia oyster beds were completely decimated. Mining in the surrounding areas of the SF Bay also lead to silt build up on the ocean floor, covering existing oyster reefs and destroying any feasible substrate for new oysters to grow. All this, plus the obvious industrial era water pollution that the oysters couldn't stave off led to their demise. Thus, what you see today is a cloudy, murky, polluted shell of what once was a bountiful, healthy San Francisco Bay.
Luckily, oyster restoration programs have sprung up all around the country in hopes of revival, including in our very own Bay Area. The Living Shoreline, run by The Watershed Project, is one of our local oyster restoration programs, and was kind enough to let me tag along on one of their field trips to Point Pinole.
Point Pinole Regional Park Oyster Grounds at Low Tide
Chris Lim, the program director, has teamed up with a few local high schools to educate kids on the importance of oysters in the Bay. The students have a few in class lectures followed by a few field trips to the oyster monitoring grounds. The trip I partook in was measuring the already existing populations of oysters and other sea life. First, we measured all things water quality. Temperature, salinity, pH, and my favorite, turbiditiy. It sounds fancy, but it's just a fun way of saying cloudiness of the water. It's even more fun when you get to use a "Secchi disc" to measure the "turbidity." Fucking smart.
After we assessed all things water, we moved on to the actual Living Shoreline. The amount of creatures that exist under a single rock was overwhelingly abundant. Sea lettuce, limpets, hermit crabs, tar spot algae, sufrgrass, stunted tutkish towels, and especially, Olympia oysters. A single rock turned over unveiled a veritable rain forest of life. The students would randomly toss a cross section onto the shore and measure what was present.
All gnarly sea life was accounted for, and then to be extrapolated in to a larger graph of what the aquatic residents more or less are. This would provide an accuarate assessment of what the current oyster poplulation of the area is. Human intervention is to follow with the placement of "reef balls" in the area to encourage more oyster growth.
These oyster ball reefs will provide a comfortable substrate for more oysters to attach to and grow on. Hopefully, with time, these reef balls will hold more and more oysters, leading to more and more healthy marine life.
Oysters have continued to give and give to both us and the oceans. They've unselfishly been keystones of our marine environments for millenia. It's now our responsibility to return them to what they once were. Perhaps, in a few decades, the San Francisco Bay may once teem again with Olympia oysters and all the bountiful sea life that comes with.
The SF Oyster Nerd