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Oysters: Their Past, Present, and Future- All Because of Us!

By Sabrina Mowery, Education Volunteer and Youth Action Council Member

Hi, my name is Sabrina and I’m a Norfolk, Virginia native with an appreciation for oysters. Even though I don’t love the salty, slimy taste that is a delicacy to some people, I can acknowledge the crucial benefits that they provide to the Chesapeake Bay. 

Basket of Oysters harvested from the Chesapeake Bay

Even if you have had the opportunity to enjoy some local oysters, chances are you aren’t fully aware of their deeply rooted history here in Hampton Roads. Oysters have been harvested by Native Americans in the area for thousands of years. Although they were consuming significant amounts of these shellfish, it wasn’t enough to drastically impact the population, especially compared to our consumption today. 

However, that started to change with the arrival of Captain John Smith and the settlers in the early 17th century. They followed the example set by native americans, eating oysters in notable amounts.  But, unlike the Native Americans before them, the English settlers were collecting oysters shells to create building materials, like lime mortar. As the population of settlers grew, the harvesting of oysters expanded with it. As you might expect, this consumption led to thousands of years of oyster growth being collected and consumed in a very short time period. 

1874 Oyster dredge

By the early 1800’s, New England fishermen had brought dredging equipment down to the Chesapeake Bay, allowing them to rapidly harvest oysters in massive amounts. An oyster dredge, as shown in the picture above, would be attached to the back of a ship and dragged across the bay floor. While this method did collect oysters quite efficiently, it also tore up everything else along the bay floor. Thousands of years of oyster growth and development were being destroyed in a ridiculously short amount of time, with no real efforts made to reduce or repair the damage being done. 

Thankfully, this began to change in Virginia around the turn of the 21st century. Organizations across coastal Virginia and around the Chesapeake Bay began a large-scale oyster restoration effort. Organizations, like the Chesapeake Bay Program and the Junior Scientist program at Nauticus, have been working to foster new oysters and educate people about the role they play in our ecosystem. While the focus of oysters in the past was their farming and consumption, now attention was being directed to their preservation and restoration. 

Even though you may not have seen the impact of their work, these organizations’ efforts have already led to the restoration of 2% of the original amount of oysters found in the bay, as of 2020. This is significant progress towards returning the bay to its former glory. Oysters play a key role in the bay’s ecosystem and our lives near the bay. They contribute by filtering the water, providing a habitat to nearly 300 species of marine creatures, and helping to reduce erosion. Without them, our lives and homes simply wouldn’t be the same.

As I said, Oysters are major filters for the bay. Each of these molluscs are so efficient that they can filter up to 50 gallons of water every 24 hours. As they filter-feed on microscopic plankton, they clean the water and remove excess nitrogen. Without the oysters to filter the water and remove nitrogen, the water quality would decline and algae would bloom out of control. Although small, reasonable amounts of nitrogen are needed for plant growth, excess can overwhelm bodies of water and ultimately reduce oxygen levels. This can make an area unsafe to swim or harvest in. Even if you may not care about oysters themselves, their function as filters that allows you to enjoy the bay’s water freely are a perfect reason to support them.

Caption: This photo shows you just how efficient oysters are. In just 5 hours, 20 mature oysters transformed that tank of water from murky to clear!

Oysters might not be your first thought when you think of a home, but the numerous species that live within the reefs think of them as just that. Baby oysters, or spat, like to grow right on top of other oysters. This leads to the creation of massive oyster reefs, which play host to more than 300 different species. Some creatures, like sea anemones, serve as food sources for commercially valuable fish. While others, like anchovies and blue crab, make use of the safe space as a nursery for their young. Without the massive structures created by oysters, hundreds of species wouldn’t have a place to forage for food, raise their young, and spend their lives. This could mean less crabs and commercially valuable fish, making them harder to get a hold of, increasing their prices, and reducing the number of jobs created by their harvest. So, for the sake of economically attainable cuisine and numerous local jobs, it’s in our best interest to help rebuild our oyster reefs.

The last house of Holland island in the Chesapeake bay, eaten up by erosion

Erosion is a major issue, especially in coastal areas. This includes land around the Chesapeake Bay. It threatens thousands of homes and businesses, although many are already taking action to protect themselves. Some of their options include elevating buildings and planting vegetation to hold down loose sediments. While these are effective methods, and a step in the right direction, many people overlook the bay’s natural stabilizers. Oysters and their reefs form over top of the seabed and it’s sediments which prevents wave action from washing them away in such massive amounts. Oysters are perfect for this job and have been functioning as a natural barrier for thousands of years. If you are going to invest in methods to keep your property safe from erosion, oysters are a perfect choice that come with many other benefits, like cleaning the water and providing habitat to sea life. If you care about keeping your property and coastal land safe, you should work to care about our natural protectors, the oysters themselves.

Now that you know just how much oysters do for you, let’s figure out how we can help them!

  • Throw away litter

Much of the litter you see is plastic, which creates damaging microplastics as it breaks down. This pollutes waterways and is nearly impossible to filter out, even for oysters. In order to make oyster’s jobs as filters easier, please pick up your trash and dispose of it properly.

  • Scoop and properly dispose of pet poop

Make sure to scoop up your pet’s poop! Pet waste that is left to be washed away is full of bacteria, diseases, and pollutants. The waste may disappear from your lawn, but the bacteria, diseases and pollutants show up in the bay. That is where it hinders oyster growth and riddles the population with diseases. 

  • Limit fertilizer use

As I mentioned earlier, the excess nitrogen from fertilizer can wreak havoc on the bay. I encourage you to limit or even eliminate fertilizer use. You will help lighten the workload for our oysters and make the bay safe for fishing, harvesting , and all sea life. 

  • Don’t eat oysters!

 If less people are buying and consuming oysters, there is less reason for suppliers to collect them. With less oysters being collected, the population can make more progress on increasing it’s numbers. 

  • Donate or recycle oyster shells

Many organizations, such as the Chesapeake Bay Program, will collect oyster shells from restaurants to be used for restoration efforts. Please do your research to make sure that if you do eat oysters, the shells will be recycled and put towards their recovery. 

  • Educate yourself and others about oyster restoration as much as possible

Please spread the word! Everything that you have learned by reading this blog can encourage others to help as well. Talk to your friends and family about oyster restoration, remember all the good things they do for you, and try to make some changes to help them! The more people that are aware of this issue, the better chance we have to make real progress for the bay and all of it’s oysters.

Most of these suggestions are simple changes that you can incorporate into your daily life. Although more drastic and expensive measures can be taken, each of your small contributions will make a difference! 

When Captain John Smith and the first settlers arrived in the early 17th century, they spearheaded the depletion of thousands of years of oyster growth. Since then, we have determined their fate through our actions and choices. Some of those choices have led to great progress, but we have to make sure that we are doing everything we can to foster their recovery and revival. Each of our contributions, no matter how insignificant they may seem, will help the population. Please do what you can to make a difference, if not for the sake of the oysters themselves, then for all of the wonderful benefits they continually bestow upon us. 

Now, please go and help the Chesapeake Bay oysters- they need our help just as much as we need theirs!

Sources

  NOAA Fisheries. “Oyster Reef Habitat.” NOAA Fisheries, NOAA, 27 July 2020, www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/habitat-conservation/oyster-reef-habitat.

Koenig, Erin. “Can Clams and Oysters Help Clean Up Waterways?” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Ocean US Magazine, 22 Jan. 2018, www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/can-clams-and-oysters-help-clean-up-waterways/.

Schulte, David M. “History of the Virginia Oyster Fishery, Chesapeake Bay, USA.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 18 Apr. 2017, www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2017.00127/full.

Volety, Aswani K. “Habitat: Oyster Reefs.” Oyster-Restoration.org, Florida Gulf Coast University, www.oyster-restoration.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/MARES_ICEM_SWFS_TechMemo_FINAL_Appdx__HabitatOysterReefs.pdf.

Photo sources:

Basket of oysters harvested from the Chesapeake bay (submitted separately as jpg)

Smith, Stephanie. “Basket of Oysters Harvested from the Chesapeake Bay.” Chesapeake Bay Program, 2 Oct. 2016, www.chesapeakebay.net/news/blog/oyster_populations_show_improvement_in_maryland_sanctuaries_study_finds.

 1874 Oyster dredge photo (submitted separately as jpg) 

Lockwood, Rev. Samuel. “Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/November 1874/The Natural History of the Oyster I.” Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/November 1874/The Natural History of the Oyster I – Wikisource, the Free Online Library, Popular Science Monthly, en.wikisource.org/wiki/Popular_Science_Monthly/Volume_6/November_1874/The_Natural_History_of_the_Oyster_I.

The last house of Holland Island in the Chesapeake bay, Eaten up by erosion (submitted separately as jpg)

Ridgely, Shawn. “The Last House of Holland Island in the Chesapeake Bay, Eaten up by Erosion.” Chesapeake Bay Foundation, cbf.typepad.com/bay_daily/2010/10/the-last-house-on-holland-island-has-fallen-the-iconic-wooden-home-which-became-a-symbol-of-the-impact-of-rising-sea-level.html.

Oyster filtered water (submitted separately as jpg)

Oyster Filtration Video. 26 July 2018, oysterrecovery.org/blog/oyster-filtration-video/. 

There’s a Pollution Problem in Our Oceans: Killer Plastic!

By: Miriam Willock, Nauticus Education Volunteer and Youth Action Council Member, 14 years old

Plastic pollution is a man-made problem that can be very deadly for fish and other marine life. It clogs our streets, creates islands of trash in the ocean, and becomes food for unsuspecting animals. 

One of the ocean’s most famous inhabitants, the leatherback turtle, is often found with plastic bags in its stomach. The turtle can mistake plastic bags for one of its main prey, jellyfish, and unknowingly, eat the pollution. This would be harmful to any living being, but especially sea turtles. This is due to a special adaptation called papillae, similar to barbs lining their mouths and throats. This prevents jellyfish from trying to escape or being expelled from their mouths with excess water. Unfortunately, because of this adaptation, turtles cannot remove plastic bags or any other pollution from their throat and can cause them to choke. 

According to The Ocean Cleanup (www.oceancleanup.com), almost 2.5 million tons of plastic pollution is flowing into our oceans from rivers each year.  The plastic pollution that doesn’t get eaten by marine life like sea turtles, gets swept away into ocean current gyres that circulate the ocean waters around the world. In these rotating gyres, the pollution collects into massive mounds and becomes major islands of trash. In fact, some of these islands even have names, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This spot, alone, is more than twice the size of Texas. This area is just the largest one of the five total trash islands found globally. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and many other areas in other oceans, including the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean, are only going to grow.  

(Photo Credit: 2020, NOAA National Ocean Service- “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”)

Call to Action!

All of these negative effects caused by plastic pollution are easily preventable which is why I’m asking you for your help combating this deadly problem, so our future and our oceans will be brighter and filled with more clean and less litter filled water. All I ask is for you to try and help through a six simple actions: 

  1. Reduce the amount of plastic you use and buy. 
  2. Refuse plastic when possible, such as refusing plastic straw or plastic bags. 
  3. Reuse. Try to use reusable items instead of single use items such as plastic bags. Instead, I’d recommend using cloth bags for your groceries.
  4. Recycle any plastic you use to reduce the amount of waste in our landfills.
  5. Pick up any litter found on the streets, so it doesn’t wash into our rivers and oceans. 
  6. Try not to contribute to the litter found on the streets. If you do, you’re making more work for yourself and others to do in step five.

If you take part in these six simple steps, you’ll be amazed at the impact it will make! You can also help spread the word to make a better and even bigger impact on our future and our world! 

Thank you! 

Sources:

More about the great pacific garbage patch

https://theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/#:~:text=The%20GPGP%20covers%20an%20estimated,times%20the%20size%20of%20France.&text=To%20formulate%20this%20number%2C%20the,elaborate%20sampling%20method%20ever%20coordinated.

More about sea turtles

https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Reptiles/Sea-Turtles/Leatherback-Sea-Turtle#:~:text=Leatherbacks%20spend%20most%20of%20their,crustaceans%2C%20and%20other%20marine%20invertebrates.

More about plastics effects on sea turtles

https://www.seeturtles.org/ocean-plastic#:~:text=Sea%20turtles%20can%20confuse%20plastic,gets%20stuck%20in%20their%20stomach.

On Our Way to Atlantis: Virginia Underwater

The Causes and Effects of Sea Level Rise and How to Prevent It

By: Naila Rivera-Morales, Nauticus Education Volunteer and Youth Action Council Member, Age 15

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lost_City_of_Atlantis.jpg

With the current pandemic, it is hard to focus our eyes on any other global issues. However, past concerns have not disappeared. The Earth has been experiencing many record-breaking temperatures in recent years. This can be attributed to a well-known phenomenon called climate change. Climate change has had many effects on the Earth with one of them being sea level rise. 

Sea level rise is a huge concern here in Virginia. The rising levels in Virginia have both global and local factors. The global factors include thermal expansion and the melting of glaciers and ice sheets. Thermal expansion produces ⅓ of global sea-level rise. Thermal expansion is when ocean waters heat up and subsequently expand up and onto the land. You can think of this as a pot of water boiling. The hotter the pot of water gets, the higher the water surface gets and spreads up and out of the pot. Next up, is the melting of glaciers and ice sheets. Over 1,700 trillion pounds of ice melt from ice sheets and glaciers in the world.  The melting of ice in the oceans works just like ice melting in a cup. The more ice melts, the higher the water level will be. 

https://www.nps.gov/articles/bear-glacier-retreat-article.htm

The slowing of the Gulf Stream is a big factor of sea-level rise in Virginia. The Gulf Stream is a strong ocean current that brings warm water up from the Gulf Mexico into the Atlantic Ocean and along the whole eastern coast of North America. As the warm water moves up north into the Atlantic Ocean, it comes in contact with cold water. The warm water, being less dense, rises above the cold water. It starts to cool and then sinks creating a normal thermal circulation of water. However, the melting glaciers introduce cold, fresh water which is also less dense than cold, salt water. So, that slows down the speed of the sinking warm water and then, in turn, slows down the whole ocean circulation of water causing sea levels to rise. 

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2010-101

Another contributing factor is land sinkage. Land sinkage is caused by heavy infrastructure (building and utilities framework), groundwater withdrawal, and the shifting of tectonic plates. Heavy infrastructure is pushing land down with its weight. Groundwater withdrawal is leveling us with the ocean waters as we take more of it out. Finally, tectonic plates are sliding under each other causing land to sink downwards. Land in Virginia is getting 1 inch lower every 10 years.

In general, the sea level has risen 8-9 inches since 1880. Additionally, the rate at which the sea level rises has more than doubled from 1.4mm to 3.6mm per year from 2006-2015. All this sea-level rise has caused many negative side effects. Sea level rise plays major roles in flooding, erosion, and storm hazards. High tide flooding has increased in frequency by 300% – 900% than 50 years ago.  This is not good news as 40% of Americans live in coastal areas. In Virginia alone, there are over 45,000 properties at risk from tidal flooding.

It might seem like there is no hope left, but there very much is. You can take simple steps that can aid greatly in saving the Earth. A very good thing to do is to lower your carbon profile. You can do this by:

  1.  Choose a public mode of transport, or use a vehicle that doesn’t use fuel like biking.
  2. Pull the plugs of idle electronics to save electricity. 
  3. Support renewable sources of energy such as solar or wind power. 
  4. Reduce your water waste. You could do this by taking shorter showers, closing the tap while brushing your teeth, or eating fewer meat products. 
  5. Eat fewer meat products is consuming all the food that you have rather than throwing away excess food. 
  6. Most importantly, speak out. Inform your friends and families about sea-level rise and place information about sea-level rise on your social media platforms. Message your state representatives with suggestions on policies or ask them to support existing policies. 

https://pixabay.com/photos/demonstration-london-demo-activist-4193109/

One person alone can not do much, but if we all work together we can preserve our planet for generations to come!

Websites used:

Celebrating 20 Years with our Nauticus/NPS Junior Scientists Club

By Susie Hill, Education Special Programs Manager

Wow, 20 years! These last two decades have been a whirlwind as we have mentored and ushered dozens of local Norfolk Public Schools middle school students through our program and watched them grow into amazing teens and even adults! It has truly been an honor to work with so many amazing young people, community partners, and volunteers. We have accomplished so much over the last 20 years that I could write for days so please bear with me as I try and encompass everything in one blog!

With the help of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and our Schooner Virginia, our Jr Scientists have had many opportunities to practice maritime science and environmental advocacy in a hands-on way both on and off our campus! To support our local waterways, they have raised and measured the growth of baby spat oysters and released them back to their natural oyster reef homes in the Elizabeth River. These students have conducted water quality tests to determine the health of the Elizabeth River off of our docks at Nauticus. And they have worked tirelessly to keep our waterways clean of pollution and marine debris: picking up litter, removing floating debris from the River , and collecting marine debris as it flows through our Seabins (the first ones on the U.S. East Coast).

Our Science Club has welcomed experts from maritime industries to teach them about local maritime issues and STEM careers; professionals from organizations such as NOAA, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Elizabeth River Project, Ocean Exploration Trust, and Port of Virginia. Our Jr Scientists have also gone out into the community, cleaning miles of beaches in the Oceanview part of Norfolk on the Annual Clean the Bay Days. They have participated in multiple award-winning environmental stewardship projects: planting schoolyard gardens, butterfly gardens, and shoreline grasses at Northside Middle School, Norview Middle School, and Camp E.W.Young.

Beyond just taking action, our Jr Scientists also educate and share their passion for Environmental Stewardship with our community to educate and inspire others to take action like they have! They have served as junior volunteers for Nauticus hosted events, most recently: NPS Regional Science Fair, ERP Youth Resilience Expo, Afrofuturism Day. At these events they have volunteered and presented STEM activities for our visiting guests and educated about their Elizabeth River restoration projects!

These wonderful students, with the help our sponsoring schoolteachers and the Nauticus team, have learned to appreciate our local waterways and the importance of protecting our environment. With the skills and confidence, they have gained in public speaking, we hope they will keep their amazing passion for learning and continue the environmental advocacy that they’ve learned as members of the Nauticus/NPS Junior Scientists Club. We thank all of our past members for their time and dedication to this amazing program! Our passionate students and community are what made the program into what it was and we wish everyone, but especially our most recent class of Jr Scientists, the best as they move onto the next chapters in their lives. Thank you for changing our world and helping to make it a better place!