The plight of Moss Landing’s Olympia oysters

MOSS LANDING — In the past three years, thousands of Olympia oysters have been raised in a laboratory and planted in the Elkhorn Slough in an ambitious effort to fend off local extinction. And the iconic creatures seem happy, hale and hearty in their new home.

But they’re not making enough babies.

The scientists working with the Olympia oysters, affectionately dubbed “Olys”  — the West Coast’s only native species of oysters — are puzzled, particularly because the shellfish being planted in the muddy slough have a good survival rate compared with other oyster restoration sites.

In the past decade, researchers have discovered new baby Olys in the slough in only two of those years — and only a handful of them at that.

“We don’t know what the problem has been,” said Kerstin Wasson, a UC Santa Cruz adjunct professor and the research coordinator at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve.

With the support of universities,  environmental groups and government agencies, researchers at nearly 40 West Coast sites are trying to reestablish Olympia oysters in places where they have historically thrived. The San Francisco Bay Area has several sites, including Crissy Field in San Francisco, China Camp State Park in Marin County and Point Pinole Regional Shoreline in Richmond.

One big reason for the restoration projects, scientists say, is that oysters are an essential part of the ecosystems of estuaries, often called the “nurseries of the sea.” Oysters filter out pollutants from the water and protect other species by creating crevices for fish and invertebrates.

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“They provide a habitat for a lot of different animals, including baby fish that grow up to be fish that we eat,” said Jacob Harris, a San Jose State University graduate student at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories who studies Olympia oysters.

Here are three of the 600 or so adult oysters used to create thousands of Olympia baby oysters in Moss Landing Marine Lab. In early December, a research team and volunteers planted the baby oysters into Elkhorn Slough. (Photo by Brian Phan) 

Researchers say the beloved bivalves could also help protect California shorelines from wave erosion, a problem that is expected to worsen with climate change. Creating reefs of oysters, marine scientists say, can reduce erosion by acting as natural breakwaters.

Olympia oysters are named after Washington state’s capital, the city of Olympia at the southern end of Puget Sound, where most of the West Coast’s oysters are still farmed.

Olys are the only native species of oysters on the West Coast. They have lived here for at least 10,000 years and were a part of the diets of California’s Indigenous people.

Demand for the oysters exploded during the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. Popular with miners, the Hangtown Fry quickly became Northern California’s most pricey breakfast. Containing bacon, Common Murre eggs from the Farallon Islands and oysters from San Francisco Bay, the meal cost roughly $6, about $165 in today’s currency.

Some historians say that the miners’ expensive tastes led to the overharvesting of the Olympia oysters all along the West Coast. That, coupled with …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment

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