We think of fish as living throughout the oceans, but most of the action happens close to shore where the food is. Indeed, 97 percent of the commercial catch of fish species in the gulf depends on its estuaries and their nursery habitats for survival. To take just one example, the gulf’s famous shrimp — which account for 73 percent of the nation’s total harvest and hundreds of millions of dollars in dockside revenue alone — lay their eggs in the open gulf, but then their hatched larvae head for the estuaries, where they live in salt marshes until they are ready to return to the open water as adults. No salt marshes, no shrimp. No estuaries, no fish.
The animal most responsible for maintaining the integrity of these estuaries is the oyster, which provides much more than New Orleans’s most delectable appetizer. Oysters occur in great abundance in the gulf’s shallow coastal waters. By gluing themselves to each other’s shells, they create reefs — much like coral reefs — that literally hold the coastal ecosystem together.
Oyster reefs form a living breakwater that protects the soft marsh shorelines from erosion and storm damage. They also serve as the condominiums of the sea, providing intricate habitats and hiding places for many small and juvenile creatures at the foundation of the gulf food web. Studies show that the commercial value of the gulf’s oysters (more than $60 million dollars per year, about 67 percent of the nation’s total) is easily surpassed by the commercial value of the fish that need these reefs.
There are few other places on earth still like this. Worldwide, 85 percent of oyster reefs have been lost. They are the single most imperiled marine habitat. The oyster reefs of the gulf are not merely the best in the nation; they are the best in the world, a global treasure. Yet some 50 percent to 90 percent of the gulf’s oyster reefs have been lost, and that was before BP’s oil spill.
Are you hooked? Read the rest of this stunning article by Rowan Jacobsen, author of “The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World” in today’s New York Times. I learned a lot from this article and “The Living Shore” is going on my to-read list immediately.
Photo by Editor B.