On hot summer days, we Bostonians often long for a place to cool off. Sure there’s the Charles, but that’s still pretty polluted with sewage and industrial waste. There’s Castle Island, but dare to dip in that water and you’ll come out looking like a gulf coast pelican with all that crap coming from the nearby airport. Revere Beach isn’t too bad, but it’s hella crowded and you’re still going to be dodging the odd unidentified floater. That pool’s looking like a good bet right now. But what we didn’t know (until now)
Acting as an all-natural filtration system, one adult oyster can filter between 30 and 50 gallons of water per day. A mature oyster reef can effectively filter waterways, working against pollution that could lead to everything from widespread illness to beach closings. Also, because oyster shells are made up of calcium carbonate, they help to offset the acidification of the water they live in, keeping the aquatic environment safe and healthy for other species to thrive. Oyster reefs can even be used as shelter by many other types of aquatic life. Because of this, they are considered a keystone species. This also means that their extinction has caused hundreds of other species to die off. This is a problem that is occurring not only in Massachusetts, but along coastlines all over the world.
Oysters were once so plentiful in New England that ships sailing in the Boston harbor used to have to navigate around their reefs in order to pass through. Sometimes able to reach the size of a man’s shoe, oysters were also a main component of the New England diet. Throughout the mid to late 1800s, oystering became one of the most lucrative and popular industries. New York City, the home of more than half of the world’s oysters at the time, consumed $6 million in oysters in 1842, and that’s without inflation accounted for.
It was during this time that the oyster population took its first major hit.
Up until as recently as the 1960s, the law did not prevent companies or individuals from dumping waste into nearby rivers or waterways. In Boston, it was common for raw sewage to be disposed of directly into the harbor (this was legal up until the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972). Chemical and waste disposal into waterways eventually led to the depletion of many aquatic species, as well as many human deaths due to consumption of infected animals. It makes sense when you think about it;
we dump shit into river, oysters filter out shit, we eat shit-encrusted oysters, and in turn, we die of typhoid.
Today, wild oyster reefs are considered the most severely impacted habitat on earth and actually no longer exist. Virtually all of the oysters we consume today must be commercially grown by farmers for the sole purpose of consumption. But according to Andrew Jay of the Massachusetts Oyster Project, a nonprofit focused on the restoration of natural oyster reefs in the Boston area, eating oysters is no longer the problem because they are rarely harvested from natural environments any more.
According to Jay, “Eating oysters is not bad for future populations because by eating oysters, you’re helping the people who care about the oyster population and about water quality. What is important is getting involved with oyster restoration or even writing a letter to your politicians saying, ‘Hey, we need more oyster restoration.’
That’s important because it’s an incredible habitat and it’s a habitat we can bring back if we want to.”
Like many other nonprofit organizations geared toward oyster restoration, the Massachusetts Oyster Project has been working for years to introduce oysters to areas like the Boston Harbor in order to rebuild reefs and repair the depleted population.
In order to repair the wild oyster population, oysters must be planted by a diver on a bed of shells on the floor of the waterway. There they are allowed to grow, a process that has slowly produced a number of small-scale natural oyster reefs over the years. Similar to coral, an oyster reef is a living habitat that takes years to form. But thanks to organizations such as the Mass Oyster Project, restoration is becoming possible.
We might be looking at a much more filtered future for the waterways in Boston, but only if we all do our part in keeping them clean.
So get eating!
illustration by Scott Murry