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It was 6 a.m. in the quiet, shallow waters near Vancouver Island and the fog still hung heavily along the coast. Nature Conservancy scientist Mike Beck had two goals: Keep one eye on the black bears feeding just a stone’s throw away and the other on studying one of the most spectacular oyster reefs he had ever seen. 

Beck had joined a team of partners for an expedition to Nootka Sound, a remote area on the west side of Vancouver Island. Their goal? To find some of the last remaining healthy Olympia oyster reefs in the Pacific Northwest.

A Good Reef Is Hard to Find

While oyster reefs once dominated this shoreline, as well as coastal estuaries around the world, now it is rare to find a reef in good condition. Discovering a healthy reef would help scientists understand more about the way an intact oyster reef ecosystem functions and also set a vision for what restored oyster reefs along the West Coast could look like again.

Determined to find the expansive, healthy Olympia oyster reefs seen only briefly from the bow of a boat more than a decade ago, expedition leaders from Vancouver Island University and The Puget Sound Restoration Fund contacted scientists from the Conservancy and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans to take part in a week-long expedition to search for and document these fabled reefs.

More than Just a Meal

Shellfish reefs and beds are one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems, damaged by centuries of overfishing and degraded more recently by pollution, development and climate change.

Native shellfish fisheries have already collapsed across Europe, the United States and Australia. With the demise of these and other shellfish reefs and beds, we have also lost:

  • habitat for a diverse array of marine life,
  • natural breakwaters that once provided protection from storm waves and erosion, and
  • the natural ability of shellfish to filter and clean the surrounding waters.

The Conservancy is protecting and restoring shellfish populations around the United States as a critical step in bringing coastal bays and estuaries back to health and regaining the important services that shellfish reefs provide to humans.

Searching for the Holy Grail of Shellfish

The expedition team found many shellfish reefs to be in good condition around Vancouver Island, but still threatened by non-native shellfish species competing for habitat, smothering sediment run-off from logging, and natural predators like sea otters, sun stars and black bears.

But on the very last morning, the team found something extraordinary. View the audio slide show above to find out more.

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