Most people from oyster-producing regions like the Chesapeake can attest to the fact that oysters are important the the social fabric of the community. In many towns that date back to the colonial era, oyster shells literally line Main Street and form the foundation of the town. In others, they form the basis of a modern-day bar scene boasting of “merroir” of the oysters alongside terroir of the wine. When the ecosystem around these kinds of places changes (think warming waters, acidified waters, introduced species who also love oysters), the resource underpinning this aspect of culture and heritage can be threatened. What does that mean for the humans so connected to the briny bivalve?
Historic Baltimore Shucking House. Courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library
Last week I had the good fortune of attending the NC Oyster Summit, hosted by the NC Coastal Federation in the Museum of Natural Sciences. We talked about the wonders that oyster restoration and aquaculture development can do for water quality, economic development, and taste buds. We enjoyed the demonstration of ‘merriore’, or the taste of the sea that lends a particular flavor to each oyster that captures the ecosystem it grew in. Yet, the fact that stuck with me most is that despite all of these wonderful celebrations of the oyster for the health and well-being of NC’s coastal communities, funding cuts of around 40% to the Department of Marine Fisheries mean that a large portion of the Albemarle Sound remains closed to harvest or aquaculture because there are no staff to check those oysters for public health risks.
The “Administrative Closure” of the most northern stretches of the state’s prized Albemarle-Pamlico estuary system is a worrying precedent in many ways that highlight how leadership withdrawal of support for science can trickle down to real economic, environmental, and cultural harm.
You have probably heard that as the global climate changes due to human influence the sea surface is going to rise and the oceans will get warmer and more acidic. The bit about the oceans increasing in acidity is particularly troubling because it implies calcium carbonate based organisms (oysters, snails, corals, etc.) will simply dissolve in this future dystopian acid-ocean (that is a bit of an oversimplification, but you get the idea).
Ocean acidity is determined by measuring the pH, which relates acidity based on the number of hydrogen ions found in the water. So long story short, as more and more carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted into the atmosphere, it in-turn fluxes into the oceans forming carbonic acid which results in the release of hydrogen ions lowering the pH. Simple logic would suggest that this spells bad news for calcifying organism (poor Mr. Snail).
Healthy Pretopod shell (left) and degraded Pteropod shell due to ocean acidification (right). (Photo credit: NOAA [climate.gov])
Title screen for “Escape from the Manatee II”, a thing that happened (at least twice) in the eighties.
Imagine swimming out from the beach on a warm, summer day. You feel a tingle in your spine and the ba-dumping chords of the Jaws theme inexplicably rise from your subconscious. There is something in the water and it is going to kill you. The deadliest creature in the ocean has chosen you, and there is no escape. You panic. You scan the waves, searching for a sign, something that reveals the threat. Where is it? What is it?!
You could be forgiven if you think, perhaps due to that ominous tune, a shark is stalking you. Despite their killer reputation, sharks rarely attack people and shark attacks, when they do occur, are rarely fatal. Perhaps you are fresh from a Marine Invertebrate Zoology course and your nightmares are now filled with images of cubozoans, the deadly box jellyfish. Box jellies may be extremely venomous, but they are responsible for less than 50 deaths a year and envenomation results in approximately a 20% mortality rate. Ah, but you’re clever, and you watch Discovery channel specials about the “Ten Most Deadly X in Y”, so you know that the deadliest creature is the ocean is the lethal sea snake, relative of the cobra. Clearly one must be stalking you through the shallows. Wrong. While sea snake venom is quite potent, only 1 in every 10 bites results in envenomation, and even then, the mortality rate is a comforting 10%.
No matter how hard you look, you won’t see the monster slowly gliding up behind you. The deadliest marine organism is not a shark, a jellyfish, or a snake. It is not the beautiful blue ring octopus or the unassuming cone snail. It is not the giant squid, the killer whale, or the murderous, man-eating, manatee. The undisputed king of maritime mortality is the lowly bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus.
Kate Orff, is not a biologist, she’s an architect. I love the idea of using natural systems to design human systems. The idea that construction should work with the landscape is not new, all you have to do is visit Falling Water to see that, but it’s an idea that hasn’t taken off like it should. Can we design our future?