Can East Coast oysters rise again?
Oysters were the backbone of the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast— a new generation of farmers aims to bring them back
The East Coast was literally built on oysters. At the peak of their production as a food source, these shellfish were so plentiful from the Gulf Coast to New England that discarded shells were crushed and used to pave roads. Oysters kept bays and waterways clean — Chesapeake Bay residents didn’t need to treat or filter their water. A 1913 National Geographic article proclaimed them “the world’s most valuable water crop,” cultivated as a year-round, dependable and inexpensive protein source. About 150,000 people in 35 countries worked to produce “the most popular and most extensively eaten of all shellfish.”
The situation more than a century later is quite different. Oysters remain desirable, but populations have been decimated. The Gulf of Mexico has just 10 percent of its peak oyster population, and Chesapeake Bay is down to a mere 1 percent. The situation has been described as dire by many locals, who’ve seen dredging, overharvesting and disease destroy oyster habitats. As a result, we’re losing ecosystem services that oysters provide to estuaries, and water in these regions is not nearly as clean as it used to be. Loss of oyster beds also leads to the decline of juvenile finfish, crab populations and seaweed growth in these regions, as well as to a loss of jobs and local economic growth opportunities.
Challenges? Yes — but these entrepreneurs are inspired, not daunted
Twenty-first century oyster farmers are trying to change this, but they face big challenges. Trade knowledge has been lost, oyster beds are eroded or destroyed, seeds (oysters hatched for transplant) are hard to find in commercial quantities, and their waters are often polluted. Coastal homeowners don’t want their waterfront views blocked by oyster beds, and it’s hard to find trained workers for an industry that’s been dormant.
But there’s still hope that oysters can once again be an economic engine and an environmental asset, particularly in the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast. A new generation of innovators is bringing oyster aquaculture back to life from Florida to Maine, inspired rather than daunted by the challenges.
Almost a dozen oyster innovators joined crab, lobster, shrimp, and other shellfish companies at a recent workshop launching the Fish 2.0 2017 competition’s South Atlantic & Gulf Coast Shellfish/Crustaceans Track, co-hosted by the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and the Marine Bio-Technologies Center of Innovation.
It was exciting to hear from and connect these innovators who are building businesses around solutions to the problems facing oyster cultivation, simultaneously working toward gains in profit and restoration. Following are some of the fresh ideas currently on the horizon.
New and better oyster beds. Without a substrate to fix onto, oysters can’t grow to maturity. These shellfish are quite hardy, though — the 1913 National Geographic article features photos of oysters thriving on bamboo and rubber boots. One team we met has developed an environmentally friendly substrate material that can be infinitely shaped for different coastlines and habitats and upon which oysters aggregate and thrive.
Diagnostics for oyster farms. Disease is an issue for everyone in aquaculture, and some diagnostics companies are developing pH-type stick tests to quickly identify diseased oysters so farmers can prevent the spread of disease to an entire crop or region.
Real-time data. Until now, most oyster farming data has been captured on paper. One team of entrepreneurs is developing software that will provide farmers with detailed information about growing conditions so they can measure the impact of changes and maximize profits and production.
Modernized operations and equipment. Oyster farms today have concerns not imagined 50 years ago. Traceability is one: To meet the criteria of sustainability- and health-conscious consumers, farmers have to keep records of harvest dates, growing conditions and more. This all must be automated to work at scale. Design is another: Oyster farms are now sharing shore space with tourism and residential property. How can they be retooled — both physically and conceptually — to be less obstructive to views, especially in the summer months? Several companies have developed technologies and models that solve these issues while reducing labor needs and improving profitability.
Seeking innovators to restore the bounty
We’re eager to see these oyster entrepreneurs alongside other innovators in the Fish 2.0 2017 competition, along with other shellfish or crustacean innovators. Investors and experts interested helping these businesses grow are encouraged to sign up as advisors and read our one-page briefing on investment opportunities.
It wasn’t that long ago that boats in the Chesapeake Bay had to worry about running aground on the bounty of this water-based crop. Here’s to a future where we rebuild not only our oyster beds but also our clean water supply and our waterfront economies.
A version of this article originally appeared on the National Geographic blog.