You may have read The Little Engine That Could to your kids or watched the movie with them, but how does that have anything to do with oysters? And what’s so special about oysters anyway?
The premise of that story is that although the engine may be small, it is mighty and can do anything it sets its mind to with a little hard work. This is a very relevant metaphor for oysters, something you may not have thought to compare.
Oysters are an extremely influential part of our complex ecosystems and have an enormous impact on places, like the Tidewater region of Virginia. Oysters help us to strengthen our coastal resiliency and to prevent climate change by acting as natural filtration systems to water and by improving flood resiliency on our coasts.
When settlers first landed near Virginia Beach, the Chesapeake Bay had water as so clear that you could see everything, as there was an enormous number of oysters that could offer filtration to the water. As time went on the excess of oysters became a navigational hazard to ships and people started to disregard that there could be any good use for oysters, other than consumption. This led to oysters being over-harvested for consumption and for construction use, such as in highways. Without proper numbers of oysters in the water, the few were left ravaged by disease until they were virtually non-existent.
By the early 2000s, science and data demonstrated how oysters could play a major role in making our ecosystems better. They can indicate the health of a waterway as they filter out our streams’ pollution and work to soothe any nutritional imbalances. This makes the water better, for not only consumption, but also for the juvenile fish. The Nature Conservancy found that for every 100,000 harvested oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, over 6 pounds of Nitrogen and Phosphorus are removed.
Not only can oysters remove pollution from our waterways, but they can also help prevent flooding and stormwater damages to the coast. Once the flesh of the oyster is removed from the shell, spat grows on that flesh’s site and the shells latch onto other shells, forming an oyster reef. These oyster reefs are extremely strong and work as breakwaters, which slows the speed of waves hitting the shore. This prevents water from smacking into the shore and stops unprecedented damage from happening. Additionally, these reefs help bring new life to our region and provide a habitat for many different species.
One of the best ways to promote oyster restoration is through living shorelines. WPL has been involved in many living shorelines since the first one in Virginia Beach in 1980. Below, you can see a picture of the living shoreline we recently did in the River Bluff neighborhood in Suffolk.
Now, who would have thought that such a tiny specimen could make such a massive splash in our hometowns?
Learn more about how oysters can prevent floods by watching this video. You can also read more about oysters and their preservation powers here. By volunteering with local organizations like Lynnhaven River NOW, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and through the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, you can help us restore oyster habitats to better our waters.