Human overconsumption and rampant environmental pollution has been the leading cause of many species to become extinct. However, public awareness of these unsustainable issues has come a long way in supporting restoration efforts.
One such success story concerns the Olympia oyster, which was once commonly found in the San Francisco Bay area. In 1893, millions of oysters were found covering 8,000 acres of the bay floor. By 1911, the native oyster beds were all-but destroyed due to overfishing and overconsumption.
Luckily, the California Coastal Conservancy is leading a five-year, $2 million effort that is attempting to bring oyster and eelgrass populations back into the Bay area. The restoration initiative, officially called the San Francisco Bay Living Shorelines project, has settled more than two million native oysters on man-made reefs in San Francisco Bay over the past year. Notably, the researchers from UC Davis and San Francisco State University are also seeing a second generation of oysters settling on the first. This growth is indicative of a healthy population, and suggests that the reef may become self-sustaining in a few generations’ time.
The reefs are made of mesh bags filled with discarded oyster shells, and acts as a natural barrier against wave action and shoreline erosion. This latter role is incredibly important for helping create a sustainable habitat for aquatic life in the Bay area. These oyster beds act like a reef, providing a protective habitat for fish, crabs, and other aquatic creatures. The increase in fish population can also attract more birds to the area due to the increased food supply. Indeed, researchers have already seen a rise in juvenile Dungeness crab, bay shrimp, and rock crab populations.
Interestingly, the oysters, despite being a long-sought delicacy among San Franciscans, will not be available for human consumption or fishing. The main reason, of course, is that the conservationists don’t want another major decline from over consumption. However, a secondary reason stems from the oyster’s filter feeding habits. Oysters can filter up to 30 gallons of water a day, and are able to remove pollutants from the water. Due to the extreme number of pollutants in the Bay area, the oysters – at least for this generation – are simply too dangerous to be edible.
Although this decline happened more than a century ago, their story remains poignant and relevant even today. Overfishing of already-declining fish populations is causing the slow and steady destruction of our oceans. While conservation efforts such as these are a great way to combat the deterioration of aquatic ecosystems, we need to act proactively to prevent the decline from happening in the first place.