Oysters are powerful allies that need our help — in New York, on Cape Cod, beyond | Opinion

Fifty gallons.

If there is a consistent point made by scientists, shellfish experts, educators and farmers about oysters and their important ecological role, it is that one modest bivalve can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day.

To a layperson, it’s a remarkable notion that a single shellfish roughly the size of a newborn’s hand can clean the equivalent of the office water cooler container every day. Multiply that by a few million, or even a billion, one can understand the magnitude — and importance — of their presence in our waterways.

That is one reason why oysters are warriors in our waterways. They are a foundational species and powerful allies in mitigating some of the impacts of people living along the coasts. In addition to stabilizing habitats and being an important food source, oysters filter water with incredible efficiency. They help remove nitrogen, plankton and other organic matters created by lawn fertilizers, septic systems and other human activities.

Oyster aquaculture offers a unique combination of being sustainable, profitable and beneficial for the environment. That said, while oysters are effective, they are no silver bullet. It is too much to ask them to do the heavy lifting.

“What shellfish help with is the stuff that slips through the cracks,” Dr. Gary Wikfors, chief, Aquaculture Sustainability Branch, NOAA Fisheries, in Milford, Connecticut. Oysters are one tool in a toolbox of managing compounds that may not get picked up with water treatment systems or other point sources, Wikfors says.

About 10 years ago, the EPA even recognized the power of oysters when the federal agency certified nutrient bio-extraction by shellfish aquaculture as a best practice for improving water quality in coastal communities.

Pace University students film a documentary, "Tide to Table: The Remarkable Journey of Oysters," in Welfleet, Massachusetts on Cape Cod earlier this year. The documentary will be shown on Cape Cod in June.
Pace University students film a documentary, "Tide to Table: The Remarkable Journey of Oysters," in Welfleet, Massachusetts on Cape Cod earlier this year. The documentary will be shown on Cape Cod in June.

Earlier this year, we were part of a team that produced a documentary, "Tide to Table: The Remarkable Journey of Oysters," that set out to understand the uniqueness and majesty of oysters, the passion beaming from farmers, and the culture surrounding this delicacy. We filmed on-location in New York City, Coastal Connecticut and throughout Cape Cod.

In addition to exploring the important history of oysters as an accessible delicacy in this country, we learned about water quality and about how modern aquaculture is playing an essential role in balancing the symbiotic relationship between people and their surroundings.

New York City has a long road ahead. Connecticut is seeing a return of its oysters. And it’s clear that Cape Cod has something special going on.

“When you live in a fragile coastal environment like we do here,” says Bert Jackson, director of Community Engagement for Expedition Blue, “you really see the impact of even small environmental changes.”

Our documentary team at Pace in 2017 similarly explored the effects of development and human impact on water from the explosive population growth in Florida. The Sunshine State has so many diverse ecosystems that it is easy to see what happens when pollution from runoff ruins a watershed. The Everglades Restoration Project, estimated to take roughly 50 years to implement, is expected to recover habitats that were once there while ensuring clean water — the lifeblood of a healthy ecosystem — isn’t an unintended casualty of rapid growth.

When it comes to successful conservation, it’s important to have vision and take a long view.

Sixty-one years ago, the Cape — and by extension its oyster industry — was aided when President John F. Kennedy established the Cape Cod National Seashore, which the Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, editorialized at the time was the “finest victory ever recorded for the cause of conservation in New England.”

Had the government not preserved nearly 44,000 acres with 40 miles of beaches, ponds and shoreline, there’s no doubt there would be giant homes firing nitrogen and fertilizers into the waterways, likely affecting the delicate balance of clean waters, estuaries, and the wondrous wild oyster populations in communities such as Wellfleet.

Conservation is a never-ending effort, especially when you consider the Cape has experienced such rapid population growth in recent decades (Wellfleet, for example, is up roughly 30% since 2010).

In these ongoing endeavors, so too is it imperative not to ask too much of oysters when it comes to cleaning waterways, cautions Josh Reitsma, Fisheries and Aquaculture Specialist with Woods Hole, Sea Grant and Cape Cod cooperative extension. Oysters should not be tasked with nitrogen mediation on their own, he notes.

He’s right. Ultimately, wherever one lives, it’s important to reflect, take responsibility, and recognize what effect we have on our environment. We were fortunate to see it firsthand throughout our travels.

Luckily, Cape Cod oyster farmers gift us with their sustainable agriculture. They are the definition of farm to table, the definition of a green industry and they respect the environment they are privileged to work in.

Education and effective stewardship are essential for all those who live, work, and love coastal communities such as the Cape.

“We have the magic of Mother Nature and the Eastern Atlantic Oyster synergizing with the beautiful Atlantic Ocean,” Morgan Ward of Dennis, Massachusetts, told us during an interview with our film crew. “Our honorable task is to make sure the oysters we select from our farm represent that magic.”

There is a magical feel about the Cape. And if there’s ever a doubt, one need only ask an oyster farmer or shellfish constable: they are great ambassadors for the industry, the environment and for Cape Cod.

Maria Luskay is a professor of communications and digital media at Pace University and a resident of Dennis, Massachusetts. Jerry McKinstry is senior director of Public Affairs at Pace University, a graduate student with Pace’s film program, and a member of the documentary’s production team.

Screenings on Cape Cod

Tide to Table: The Remarkable Journey of Oysters will be airing at three venues throughout Cape Cod in June. Registration is open for the following free screenings:

  • Tuesday, June 7, at 7 p.m. at Wellfleet Preservation Hall, Wellfleet, Massachusetts. This is a showing of the documentary followed by a Q&A. Oyster farmers are welcome to join in and answer questions.

  • Thursday, June 16, at 7 p.m. at Chatham Orpheum, Chatham, Massachusetts. There will be a reception from 6 to 7 p.m. with a cash bar for food and drinks. The film showing will be at 7p.m. with the filmmakers followed by a Q&A. Oyster farmers are welcome to join in and answer questions.

  • Wednesday, June 22, at 6 p.m. at Cape Cinema, Dennis, Massachusetts.- There is a reception from 6 to 7 p.m. with a fee of $15 to cover food for the attendees. The film showing will be at 7 p.m. with the filmmakers. Oyster farmers are welcome to join in and answer questions.

For anyone who cannot make in-person showings, there will be an online premiere at 7 p.m. on June 27, 2022. Email jmckinstry@pace.edu for information.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Cape Cod oysters are powerful allies that need our help.