A disturbing nationwide decline in oysters and the life-giving reefs that they build is particularly dramatic in California, where the once-abundant native species has been virtually wiped out, according to a recent scientific study.
The report, published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, said Olympia oysters, once an integral part of the Native American diet and a staple during the San Francisco Gold Rush, are functionally extinct.
“Essentially, today, the number of oyster reefs is zero,” said Rob Brumbaugh, restoration director for the Nature Conservancy and co-author of the study. “It’s the complete elimination of a key species and habitat on the West Coast.”
The loss of native oysters – not to be confused with the farm-raised Japanese Pacific oysters – is a serious issue, he said, because oysters clean the water by filter feeding. A single oyster can filter up to 30 gallons of water a day, removing nitrogen and other pollutants, Brumbaugh said. The oyster beds, or reefs, they create provide habitat for myriad fish, crabs and other creatures.
“What they do for us is filter water and help remove nitrogen pollution while increasing the growth and survival of other fish,” Brumbaugh said. “Oysters and the reefs that they create are great pollution scrubbers.”