This summer, The Nature Conservancy released the first-ever comprehensive global report on the state of shellfish at the International Marine Conservation Congress in Washington, DC. The report concludes that oyster reefs are the most severely impacted marine habitat on the planet.
“We’re seeing an unprecedented and alarming decline in the condition of oyster reefs, a critically important habitat in the world’s bays and estuaries,” said Mike Beck, senior marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy and lead author of the report. “However, realistic and cost-effective solutions within conservation and coastal restoration programs, along with policy and reef management improvements, provide hope for the survival of shellfish.”
The hope for survival can be seen along the coast of South Carolina.
The local oysters are still healthy, and favorable conditions exist for their survival: good water quality, large spat supply and ongoing restoration efforts. This spring, the South Carolina chapter of the Conservancy partnered with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to complete its first restoration project, creating an oyster reef in Tibwin Creek near McClellanville. In addition to on-the ground restoration efforts, the Conservancy is studying the use of alternative materials as substrate for oysters, working to increase the oyster shell recycling across the state and looking into state policy that could support the oyster conservation efforts.
“I am excited to work with the existing partners the Conservancy has in South Carolina and to create new relationships that will increase the oyster ecosystems in the future,” said Joy Brown, Marine Restoration Specialist for the South Carolina Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
Besides being a culinary favorite and a long-standing staple in seafood restaurants around the globe, oysters provide benefits to humans in less obvious ways. For example, they act as natural water filters and improve water quality, provide food and habitat for fish, crabs and birds, and serve as natural coastal buffers that help to protect shorelines and keep coastal marshes intact, an important factor in protecting communities against storm surges and sea-level rise.
Reefs are functionally extinct in many areas, particularly in North America, Australia and Europe, and are no longer able to provide ecosystem services that benefit people. The driving forces behind the decline of oyster reefs include destructive fishing practices, coastal over-development, and associated effects of upstream activities such as altered river flows, dams, poorly managed agriculture and poor water quality. Many of these threats have been around for decades and even centuries, but today there are two main issues that impede oyster recovery efforts: thinking non-native oysters are a suitable replacement for the native species and a lack of understanding about the loss of oyster habitat.
Although the South Carolina oysters are showing good stability in many locations, there is still a need to recognize the loss of the populations over the last 100 years. According to the report, a primary concern is a widespread lack of awareness that shellfish habitats are in trouble.In nearly all cases, shellfish are managed as fisheries, meaning they are viewed as a commodity but are not valued for the intrinsic role they play in keeping marine ecosystems healthy and intact.
Recognizing the need to increase understanding of oyster reefs, SC House Rep. Carl Anderson recently invited The Nature Conservancy to speak to over 600 of his constituents about the value of ecosystem services provided by oysters. Anderson, who represents both Georgetown and Williamsburg Counties, “supports the need for public education and awareness of our valued resource.”
In addition to an increased understanding, the report lays out specific recommendations, drawn from examples around the world, to ensure conservation of remaining reefs and even reverse losses to restore ecosystem services that benefit people. These include the need to elevate native, wild oyster reefs as a priority for habitat management and conservation and to carry out large-scale restoration programs.
In South Carolina, efforts are already underway to implement many of the recommended strategies. For example, the DNR and partners annually plant 50,000 bushels of oyster restoration projects along the coast. The restoration projects are comprised of large scale loose shell sprayed along the marsh in open harvest areas and smaller scale SCORE projects to include non-harvest waters of the state. The SC DNR has been a pioneer in the oyster restoration and monitoring techniques since the early 1900’s.
"SC DNR conducts a number of research, conservation and management programs to ensure sustainability of our states oyster habitat," said Bill Anderson of the Fisheries Management division of the DNR. "These efforts include using some of the most advanced mapping techniques available to identify and monitor oyster populations in the nearshore waters of the state."
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.