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Conspicuously Missing During Sandy: Oysters

In New York and New England, we'll see the loss of historically-massive populations of oysters.
October 30, 2012, 12:00am
Oyster beds in Hawk's Point, Washington, circa 1932. Via Willabay

Even if extreme weather events don't become more frequent despite predictions, we often forget about the other major problem when it comes to hurricanes: the natural barriers that have historically helped protect us on land have been heavily degraded since colonists first settled in North America. In New York and New England, that means the loss of historically-massive populations of oysters, as Paul Greenberg notes in an excellent Times piece:


Until European colonists arrived, oysters took advantage of the spectacular estuarine algae blooms that resulted from all these nutrients and built themselves a kingdom. Generation after generation of oyster larvae rooted themselves on layers of mature oyster shells for more than 7,000 years until enormous underwater reefs were built up around nearly every shore of greater New York.

Just as corals protect tropical islands, these oyster beds created undulation and contour on the harbor bottom that broke up wave action before it could pound the shore with its full force. Beds closer to shore clarified the water through their assiduous filtration (a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day); this allowed marsh grasses to grow, which in turn held the shores together with their extensive root structure.

But 400 years of poor behavior on the part of humans have ruined all that. As Mark Kurlansky details in his fine book "The Big Oyster," during their first 300 years on these shores colonists nearly ate the wild creatures out of existence. We mined the natural beds throughout the waterways of greater New York and burned them down for lime or crushed them up for road beds.

Go read the whole piece, it's more than worth your time. It's important to note that it's not just oysters, either: In the Gulf of Mexico, wetlands have been disappearing for decades, which means tons of hurricane-buffering land is gone forever. It's important to think about, because we're basically burning the candle at both ends by creating conditions for more powerful storms while also steadily eliminating natural buffers. All that means is that, as the seas rise, we'll increasingly be on our own.

Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.