Posted by admin | 02.24.2011 | Conservation, Marine Science

Bivalves v. the Budget

Oysters are odd. They have irregular shapes and, like snowflakes, very rarely resemble their neighbors. Unlike many other bivalves, their shells are not symmetrical. They occupy a strange, no man’s land between the tides – living sometimes in and sometimes out of water. Despite their humble exterior, their insides are of high commercial value. And while some may argue over the taste (or appropriate toppings), there is no disputing that they are vitally important to the coastal environment.

Therefore, it is extremely distressing to see numerous oyster projects on the chopping block due to the state’s budgetary woes; Governor Bev Purdue’s 2011-2013 state budget proposes the elimination or reduction of 3 different programs. In order to meet fiscal demands, she has called for the cancellation of the Department of Marine Fisheries (DMF)’s oyster sanctuary program and North Carolina’s shellfish mapping program. In line for a reduction is DMF’s shellfish rehabilitation program, which includes the popular shell recycling initiative.

Compared to some of the large state divisions in need of financial support, the oyster may not look very important, but looks are deceiving. The state’s oyster fishery is already listed as a fishery of “concern” due to long term decline from overharvesting and habitat disturbance. Despite this, it is still an important part of the economy, with the 2009 landings bringing in over 2.5 million in revenue.

More important still are the positive environmental impacts of oysters. As bivalves they filter feed, straining the water for plankton while simultaneously removing pollutants. It has been recorded that a single oyster can filter almost 50 gallons of water a day. This water quality improvement helps other state fisheries as well, since the stocks have cleaner water and more habitat for juveniles. And frequent beach goers can also be thankful to the oyster for keeping the water safe and limiting beach closures.

Without these programs in place, the future of coastal ecosystems is in question. They oyster populations need to monitored and rehabilitated to ensure both water quality and commercial fisheries. If you doubt the importance of this small organism, ask someone from the Chesapeake.