Oyster Apocalypse? Truth About Bivalve Obliteration

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You know that list of vanishing species you keep hearing about? The one full of species that have been on the earth for millions of years, but that have recently become as scarce as liberal op-ed columnists? Well, you can now add wild oysters to the list, simple bivalves that go back nearly 250 million years, to the Triassic period. (Something that looked, and probably tasted, much like oysters probably goes back a lot farther.)

According to a study published in the February issue of BioScience, 85% percent of the world's native oyster reefs have been destroyed. Three-quarters of the wild oysters left in the world, the study says, now live in North America — and they aren't all doing that great, either. Many of the native reefs that still exist are "functionally extinct," meaning they no longer play a significant role in the ecosystem, which is a big deal since these rugged little buggers used to do such things as create habitats for other species, keep the water clean and shore up coastlines. One of the last major areas to harbor native oyster reefs is the Gulf of Mexico, and at least half of the ones there were destroyed by the BP oil spill — or the subsequent attempts to clean it up.

Oysters aren't delicate creatures. In fact, you have to go out of your way to make life difficult for these animals, which happen to be the most efficient water filters in the world. For centuries, they kept the English Channel from choking itself on sewage and industrial sludge; a few beds can clean the entire New York City harbor in a matter of months, according to Mark Kurlansky's admirable book, The Big Oyster. In it, he notes that the creatures just a hundred years ago were so common and copious that you could buy a big jar of them, shelled, for a quarter. The indigenous peoples of Manhattan ate so many oysters that the leftover shells formed mountains that could be used as landmarks. More recently, their shells have been turned into calcium supplements and construction materials. But alas, out of pure shortsightedness, these incredibly beneficial animals have been driven to functional extinction. How did this happen?

It happened the same way bluefin overfishing happened — and the same way wild salmon is about to happen. Small-scale fishermen don't worry about the big picture because, for the most part, they are barely making a living. The managers of big commercial fleets don't worry because their competitors don't and because, in a market where they make less every year, the idea of trading short-term profits for an actual future has no tangible payoff. As with global warming, there are any number of paid stooges and lobbyists willing to dispute the science and muddy the waters, further exacerbating the situation. Nor are progressives free from blame: with their reflexive abhorrence of farmed seafood and their equally thoughtless embrace of wild seafood, they are only hastening the end of the latter and the necessity of the former.

Oysters are an excellent case in point. Right now, nearly all the ones we eat are farmed. Oysters, like cattle, today exist essentially for the sole purpose of being eaten by people. So all you foodies can rest easy — you'll still be able to go to fancy restaurants and pay $3.50 to slurp down a mindless sea stomach. But that continuing convenience doesn't minimize the tawdry demise of a wild animal that has thrived on this planet for a quarter of a billion years.

It's not too late to restore native oyster reefs. But to succeed on a mass scale, we'd need a powerful and incorruptible superstate that has the ability to police the world's best interests, to incentivize conservation efforts and, in the meantime, promote safe aquaculture. But my dreams of living in such a benevolent technocracy vanished when I found out I wasn't Norwegian. No, in most places it's still every man for himself, and the animal world be damned. That attitude will likely persist until we all starve to death, and periodic expressions of sorrow and anger won't do much to change it. And that's a fact that doesn't go down easy.

Ozersky is a James Beard Award–winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for TIME.com, usually appears every Wednesday.