For years, oysters have been a delicious food for humans and animals alike. Once, oyster beds were so large that ships had to navigate around them. However, after years of overfishing them and destroying oyster beds, people are working to rebuild the oysters’ habitats.
Oysters are an important part of the world’s ecosystem. They are an essential food source for many animals, including humans. They also filter the water, and oyster reefs provide habitats for crabs and fish.
Read on to learn more about oysters and their contribution to the ecosystems of the world’s waters.
What are Oysters?
Oysters are bivalve mollusks, soft-bodied invertebrates that have an external shell covering that is hinged.
There are many species of oysters, and each has a unique shell shape, but they are typically gray-colored with rough surfaces on the outside. The inner surface (mantle) of the shell is smooth and white.
Ligaments hold together the two halves of the shell. These ligaments attach to a muscle the animal uses to open and shut the shell. Oysters hold the valves open slightly, allowing water to pass through.
Oysters don’t have much of a discernible shape inside, but it contains the same sort of body functions as other animals. The oyster is a hermaphrodite, changing back and forth between male and female based on the salinity of the water.
There is a gill area that water passes through. Tiny cilia on the gills create a water current that brings plankton for the oysters to feed on. This process also works to filter the water. A single oyster can filter through 2-3 gallons of water per hour.
Where Can you Find Oysters?
Oysters live in brackish coastal waters throughout the world’s oceans. Oysters begin as tiny larvae swimming through the ocean. They will find a solid surface to attach themselves to and accumulate in large clusters. Oysters can attach to rocks, old oyster shells, wrecks, or piers.
After a while, the oysters create a large, rock-like structure known as an oyster reef. The structure continues to grow as new oysters fuse with older ones. This oyster reef provides a habitat for many marine animals and plants.
Why are Oysters Important to Our Ecosystem?
Oysters, like dolphins, benefit the ecosystem in many ways. They provide a habitat for other species to live. Several small fish and crabs use oyster reefs to hide from predators. Other creatures like mussels, anemones, and barnacles begin to grow on these reefs creating food that other marine animals travel to the reef to feed on.
They also filter water making the water quality in the area cleaner. One oyster can filter around 50 gallons of water per day. These oysters eliminate the build-up of algae and allow for clear, cleaner water for the marine creatures in the area.
These oyster reefs are not only beneficial for marine creatures, but they also provide humans with many benefits. Oyster reefs can provide storm protection to areas that get a lot of flooding and tidal waves. Oysters are also a delicious food source for many animals and humans throughout the world. Oyster reefs also provide prime fishing areas for many of humans’ favorite seafood. Harvesting oysters is a lucrative operation that benefits the economy, as well.
The Oyster Craze
As with many creatures, oysters used to be plentiful in the coastal regions of the world. However, over-harvesting and pollution threaten these rich habitats and create a decline in their numbers.
For over 2,000 years, people have cultivated oysters as food. Rich and poor alike enjoyed oysters, which were an abundant food source from the 8th to the 16th centuries. In Chesapeake Bay in the early 1600s, Captain John Smith claimed that the oyster beds were so thick that they became navigational hazards for ships.
However, it was in the 19th and 20th centuries when oysters became a popular meal for the lower class. It was a cheap alternative to more expensive meats, so a variety of oyster dishes became the norm. Oysters were over-fished, and their numbers dwindled.
Many countries today have oyster fishing laws. People now consider oysters a delicacy. Yet, food wasn’t the only reason for the oyster overfishing. Many oysters are also farmed for the pearls they create. Water pollution has also caused oysters to decline.
Many conservationists are working to increase oyster numbers. Strict laws about farming have helped establish a sustainable farming market. Scientists work to map out oyster bed conditions and monitor the water quality in these areas.
They also provide suitable environments for the oysters to form their reefs, especially in areas where oyster reefs protect the shoreline. They are also creating hatchers to help oysters reproduce so that these creatures can increase in numbers.
Also, reducing pollution in coastal regions helps to preserve oysters in the wild.
Although you don’t often think about oysters, they are an essential part of our ecosystem. They control the water quality of many coastal regions, provide homes for many plants and animals in the water, are a food source, and protect shorelines from storm surges.
Overfishing has emptied oyster reefs and decreased the number of oysters in the world’s waters. However, many conservationists are working to save these vital creatures. You can help by contributing to these conservation efforts and preventing pollution in coastal regions. Hopefully, one day we’ll be able to see oyster reefs as large and prosperous as were recorded a few hundred years ago.