Oysters: Cleaning House


Last spring, Essex Shellfish Constable Billy Novack presented a creative idea to the Board of Selectmen that he recommended: to install up to 60,000 baby oysters in the waters of Essex as part of an environmental project that works to turn oyster beds into sea cleaning engines.  That time has come, and Novack said plans will move ahead sometime next month. 

At the time, Novack told the Selectmen the program, called the Massachusetts Bay Oyster Project (MBOP) is an environmental non-profit operating out of the South Shore that is working to conserve coastal estuaries and rehabilitate their native shellfish populations.   

To accomplish this, the organization has a program that grows thousands of baby oysters and donates them to any coastal town willing to host.  Gloucester has been a participant of the program for three years.  Back in May, Novack said the plan was to deposit the oysters around Essex sometime in early October.  That said, Novack reports that the timeline has been pushed back a bit.  He told The Cricket that the oysters were not yet “up to size,” and must grow to the size of silver dollars before they can safely be released into the wild. 

Historically, the east coast of Massachusetts was home to prominent oyster reefs.  They served to bluff intense waves and protect marshes from disturbance.  These reefs, formed by thousands of oysters that grow attached to each other and the rocks around them, allowed biodiversity in the salt marshes to bloom.  Scientists generally refer to organisms like oysters as a keystone species, or a species with an ecological function that supports the growth and development of many other species around them, because their tendency to build reefs reduces erosion and provides a scaffolding upon which other organisms can thrive.   

Environmentalists say they’re a huge part of coastal habitat health and offer support to coastlines that are the state’s most vulnerable habitats.  Oysters are known to be filter feeders, or animals that consume nitrogenous compounds and other particles from the water surrounding them.  As such, they leave water cleaner and clearer wherever they grow.  In fact, research has shown that a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day.  This can make local water and seafood safer for people in the area as well as increase the potential for sunlight penetration, which is important for underwater flora.  

Now, despite restoration efforts, conditions have declined to the point where the east coast is only able to support oyster populations that are about one percent of historic population sizes. This is consistent with the broader effects of climate change, as studies show that approximately 85 percent of all oyster reefs across the globe have been lost in the past 200 years.   

Where they will be placed in Essex next month is purposely kept secret, said Novack, to give them the best shot at maturation.  But, overall, it seems that Essex will greatly benefit from the presence of these coastal housekeepers.   

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