Oysters are disappearing!
Wait, no. Make that wild oysters are disappearing!
A recent technical paper produced a mouthful of a talking point: 85 percent of oyster reefs have been lost globally, and in many bays once-plentiful oyster reefs are now functionally extinct.
As you might expect, such a dire revelation launched a lot of online teeth-gnashing and fond farewells to the sexiest of all bivalves. However as with nearly all seafood these days, there are two main characters involved in this story: farmed oysters and wild oysters.
The farmed oyster side of this harrowing tale comes with just a teensy bit of bias towards human happiness: shellfish lovers shouldn’t panic because most of the oysters they eat today are farmed. It’s true, the vast majority of oysters eaten in restaurants or beach shacks are not wild harvested, so everyone can keep enjoying the little briny delights despite the bad news about disappearing reefs.
And contrary to some forms of fish farming, oyster farming has a great reputation:
Blue Ocean Institute: Eastern Oysters (including farm-raised) get a green fish -- the highest ranking possible
Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector: U.S. farm-raised oysters are “Eco-Best”
Food & Water Watch Smart Seafood Guide: U.S. and locally-farmed oysters are recommended as a best choice.
SeafoodWATCH: Farmed oysters are a “Best Choice”
Across the board, farm-raised native oysters get rave reviews. They help to filter pollutants from the water, sequester carbon in their shells, and provide food and habitat for other animals. In some cases, oysters and other shellfish are even being farmed using solar power. But as great as shellfish aquaculture can be, oysters serve a purpose beyond that of pairing well with a glass of Pinot Grigio.
This brings us to the tragic character in this story, the wild oyster. As the previously mentioned research paper shows, wild oyster reefs are in serious trouble, and they have been for some time. New York City residents were once able to buy dinner-plate-sized oysters harvested just offshore, but now try to find a wild oyster in New York Harbor, never mind an edible one. A little further south in the Chesapeake Bay, last year’s bumper crop of baby oysters is a welcome sign, but the overall population is still only 1 or 2 percent of what it once was.
In fact, North America is left with one final region that supports a healthy native oyster population – the Gulf of Mexico. The gulf provides 40 percent of the United States' domestic oysters, but because of last summer’s oil spill, production in the region that holds the most hope for the future of wild oyster reefs has suffered a precipitous fall.
It’s a tale of two shellfish: farmed oysters are becoming more and more popular while wild oysters are becoming scarcer. Oyster lovers with a touch of tunnel vision can continue to slurp down without worrying about the dramatic loss of oyster reefs because farmed shellfish are meeting human demand. The demand that oyster aquaculture cannot fill, however, is the ecological value of the entire 85 percent of wild oyster reefs that have been lost globally. So chow down, guilt free, but consider returning the favor by pushing for the restoration of wild oyster reefs, even if they're not going to supply your order at the raw bar anytime soon.