Diving Deep on Aquaculture
We're collaborating with oyster farmers to study how growing oysters can benefit people and nature.
In summer 2019, GoPro cameras plunged into the waters of Duxbury and Cotuit harbors on a mission: to film the underwater habitats created by oyster farms. This unique view of the cages used for growing oysters is part of an ambitious collaboration between The Nature Conservancy, Island Creek Oysters, Cotuit Oyster Company, Northeastern University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northeast Fisheries Science Center, focused on evaluating how shellfish farming can improve environmental conditions.
“It’s an exciting opportunity for people and nature,” says Steve Kirk, former oyster farmer and coastal program manager for TNC in Massachusetts. “We hope to better understand what effects the farms are having on the surrounding area. We think that both the oyster farming gear and the oysters themselves can be a benefit, providing habitat to fish and other marine life.”
Aquaculture: The Big Picture
Globally, the term aquaculture refers to the growing of a wide range of species in water, including seaweeds, shellfish and finfish. Aquaculture can be a very efficient way of growing food compared to terrestrial agriculture. It also offers a way to grow nutritious food while bolstering the economy and even accelerating coastal ecosystem recovery.
In Massachusetts, the aquaculture industry is dominated by shellfish, specifically oysters. Farmed oysters are the third-highest-value seafood product in the state, behind sea scallops and lobsters. Up and down the Bay State’s coast, family-run shellfish farms supply sought-after oysters for raw bars, restaurants and kitchens, locally and throughout the country.
Growing Shellfish as a Sustainable Food Source
Around the world, 3 billion people rely on seafood as a primary protein source. For TNC, providing food sustainably is a global priority. As demand for nutritious seafood continues to climb, we believe that aquaculture can help meet that demand while having a positive impact on the environment.
When best practices are not followed, aquaculture can damage habitat and water quality. TNC is working to ensure that aquaculture is done in the right ways in the right places to minimize negative impacts and maximize social, economic and environmental benefits. Given that aquaculture is the world’s fastest growing food production method, any development must be done as sustainably as possible.
A Natural Solution for Restoring Estuaries
Beyond food production and economic benefits, shellfish play an important role along our coastlines. Estuaries—places where rivers meet the ocean—are incredibly valuable habitats for many marine and terrestrial species, but they are under increasing stress from climate change, nutrient pollution and land use practices.
More oysters, clams, scallops and mussels in the water means healthier and cleaner estuaries inhabited by a wider variety of marine life. Shellfish are filter feeders, cleaning the waters they live in while providing habitat and food for small fish and other species.
The aquaculture industry can play an important role in helping to restore estuaries, and TNC is working around the world in partnership with shellfish farmers to better understand and maximize the ecological services their industry can provide. In Massachusetts, the underwater cameras deployed by TNC and partners from May through October at two local oyster farms captured video of the farming gear they are using. The video is now being analyzed by researchers to determine how other marine species, like fish and crustaceans, may be benefitting from the oyster farms.
Building on a research program that has been in place in Connecticut since 2017, the collaboration will provide a broad regional picture of potential aquaculture infrastructure benefits. "We've heard from oyster growers for many years that they see lots of fish swimming in and around their gear," says NOAA Milford Lab researcher Julie Rose. "It's very exciting to have research projects in multiple states collecting scientific data to investigate these reports."
Local to Global Impacts
“If commercial shellfish farming can provide similar and complementary benefits to habitat restoration, it creates a triple bottom line: sustainable food, improved coastal economies and restored estuaries,” says Kirk.
Findings from the study in Massachusetts will be shared with shellfish farmers, natural resource managers and the general public to support sustainable seafood production going forward.
The collaboration also includes a social science research component focused on better understanding what drives coastal communities’ perceptions of aquaculture, in particular, the different growing methods. A survey has been drafted, for use in outreach this winter and to be analyzed in spring 2020 by graduate students from Northeastern. Though originally scoped for just Massachusetts, this component has expanded to the entire eastern seabord.
TNC’s commitment goes beyond state lines, supporting restorative oyster aquaculture from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast of the U.S., and around the world. Together, we can turn the tide for sustainable food production and estuary health.