Eat, Shuck, Love

6 Reasons to Fall in Love With Oysters

They say that to fuel his notorious romantic escapades, Casanova would feast on upwards of 50 raw oysters a day. And Aphrodite herself is often depicted lounging on a half shell.

Oysters have long inspired romance, but their own story is one for the ages. It’s a tale of an unsung hero facing incredible odds—and an opportunity for a comeback.

This February, The Nature Conservancy and Whole Foods are working together to show oysters some love. A new gift from Whole Foods will power our ongoing work to revive wild oyster habitat through science-based restoration at more than 80 sites across the country. It's important work; factors including pollution, disease, drought and degraded habitat have made oyster reefs the single most imperiled marine habitat on earth. But thanks to partners and members like you, hope is on the horizon.

Keep reading to find out why we’re wild about oysters!

1. Oysters Are Delicious

French writer Guy de Maupassant once described oysters as: "small and rich, looking like little ears enfolded in shells, and melting between the palate and the tongue like salted sweets." 

Whether you slurp them straight off the shell or prefer a splash of cocktail sauce, oysters on the half shell are a treat. Connoisseurs of the mollusk say the flavor—which can range from salty to sweet, mild or buttery—is influenced by the waters and lands where the oyster was raised. West coast oysters, like the Kumamoto, have a different taste than east coasters. This is known as terroir.

Another tip for foodies: Oyster reefs are key to promoting healthy fisheries, as well as increased catches of fish and crabs that rely on the reefs for protection. Reef restoration can be a boon to communities that rely on shellfish and finfish, and in communities like Wellfleet, Massachusetts the Conservancy has worked to rebuild oyster reefs both to improve water quality and enhance local fisheries.

2. Oysters Protect Shorelines

Oysters are the ultimate givers. Not only do they feed us, but their reefs—which can grow several miles long—protect our shorelines, providing a natural barrier to storm waves and sea-level rise.

Storms such as Hurricane Ike and more recently, Hurricane Sandy, illustrate a need for coastal resiliency. The Conservancy works with communities nationwide to demonstrate how natural elements like oyster reefs can help protect against future storms, all while benefiting the economy and our way of life.

Oyster reef restoration takes many forms. One method involves spreading fossilized oyster shells over the seafloor. Another method uses concrete “oyster castles,” marine-friendly structures (shown in the photo above) that fit together like Legos. Just like natural shells, the castles provide a foundation where oyster larvae can latch and grow.

Another prime example of this work occurs on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where sea levels are rising at three to four times the global average. Here we are restoring oyster reefs to demonstrate their effectiveness as natural buffers against waves. The effort includes two newly constructed reefs at Man and Boy Marsh.

Watch an interactive graphic to see how oyster reefs work.

3. Oysters Clean Water

Yes, that’s right. More oysters lead to cleaner water for everyone. An individual adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day; a healthy one-acre reef filters approximately 24 million gallons of water daily!

Improved water quality and clarity is a benefit of our oyster reef restoration projects in places like Chesapeake Bay, where we recently completed the largest oyster restoration project on the planet. At 350 acres, the Harris Creek reef is bigger than the National Mall and has been seeded with more than 2 billion oysters. It's part of an aggressive and concerted effort to restore oyster reefs in 10 Chesapeake Bay tributaries by 2025.

4. Oysters are a Cornerstone of Coastal Culture

Oysters have long been important to coastal communities. A great example is in Washington state. Here, in the shallow bays and estuaries of beautiful Puget Sound and Willapa Bay, oyster reefs were once plentiful. They were home to the Olympia oyster, the only oyster native to the West coast of North America.

Native people enjoyed abundant wild oysters in Washington. In the mid 1800s the California gold rush spurred commercial harvest; as oysters were depleted in California’s waters, people sought and found them farther north. It didn’t take long for Olympia oyster beds to be picked clean.

As native oysters became scarce, non-native ones were imported from the east coast and Japan. Soon a thriving and world renowned Washington oyster industry was established.

5. Oysters Provide Habitat

It’s not just people who benefit from oysters. Oyster reefs provide food and habitat for fish, birds and marine life like blue crab, shrimp and rockfish. You can see this phenomenon in action  in Texas’s Matagorda Bay, where the Conservancy has restored Half Moon Reef, a 400-acre underwater oyster colony.

Half Moon is one of the largest restoration projects around the country and is designed to support a diverse habitat, attracting not only oysters, but also a variety of fish, shellfish, small invertebrates and sea turtles. Early results have shown this complex design is working. Scientists say Half Moon Reef is not only showing “phenomenal colonization and marketable-sized oysters,” but high levels of biodiversity!

We’re also aiming for enhanced habitat in New Jersey, where the Conservancy is installing 3,000 acres of oysters as part of a living shoreline at Gandy’s Beach. Horseshoe crabs and red knots both stand to benefit.

6. Oysters are Poised for a Comeback

It’s been said that oysters have been “loved to death.”  Roughly 85 percent of the world ‘s oyster reefs have disappeared since the late 19th century, with many once-bountiful reefs rendered functionally extinct due to overharvesting and other causes.

Three-quarters of the remaining reefs are in just five locations in North America; of those regions, the Gulf of Mexico—which has lost about 50 percent of its reefs—is considered the last, best hope for full restoration of healthy oyster reefs.

With innovative science—and the support of partners and members like you - we are turning the tide. The Conservancy is working to restore nearly 800 acres of historic oyster reefs across the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines, giving nature’s hardest working bivalve an opportunity to make a comeback.

Inspired? Your support will help this work continue.