Unless you’re about to slurp them down or are a marine biologist, chances are you don’t think about oysters very much.
But Paul Greenberg does. The New York Times op ed contributor and author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food had them on the brain just before Hurricane Sandy struck his hometown of New York. He was thinking about how the bivalve population that used to dominate the eastern coast from D.C. to Boston could have diminished Sandy’s strength.
According to Greenberg, 400 years ago there existed an empire of American oysters (Crassostrea virginica) along the mouths of rivers up and down the coast. They prefer areas that have a good mix of fresh and salt water, so the Hudson Bay shore lines were ideal. These oysters created what could best be described as a reef, with new oyster larvae embedding themselves on old oyster shells and growing into adults.
Then, the oysters did what they do best: Filter water. They clarified gallons and gallons of water every day, making conditions ripe for underwater plants to grow. The oyster corals, along with the stabilizing roots of the plants forged a strong non-corroding shoreline with a craggy bottom – a very inhospitable place for a hurricane to land. The ridges created by the oysters would break up the hurricane’s water movement and the roots would protect the shore from being torn away.
But today, Greenberg says the east coast’s poor behavior over the last four centuries – pollution, habitat destruction and over-consumption – has ruined all that. The oyster kingdom has all but faded away, save for a few conservation efforts, and Hurricane Sandy had a nice, smooth bay bottom welcoming her approach.