The eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) lives in estuaries along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and has served as an important food supply for centuries. While oysters are prized for their meat at the dinner table, they also play an important role in nature as “filter-feeders,” just like other clams, saltwater mussels, and even freshwater mussels. These animals are called bivalve mollusks and have a unique ability to collect and eat very small particles of food (like phytoplankton) out of the water. By filtering out very small particles in the water, these animals help clean the water they live in! These natural benefits, or ecosystem services, support all kinds of life in the estuary.
While many bivalve mollusks help clean water, oysters are also very good at building reefs. Oysters reproduce by releasing their eggs and sperm into the water and nature brings them together to create baby oysters (larvae). Oyster larvae then float around until they can settle on top of something, usually other oysters! As oysters settle and grow on top of each other, a reef can form and continue to grow many feet high and many miles wide. All kids of estuarine animals, such as crabs and fish, use these reefs as hiding spots, feeding grounds, or even as their own homes. Just like coral reefs in tropical waters, oyster reefs in Delaware Bay are full of life. Healthy oyster reefs support a strong local economy through recreational and commercial activities!
Locally in the Delaware Estuary, oysters were very abundance until the 1950s when the oyster disease MSX initially over 95% of the entire population. A second oyster disease, Dermo, appeared in the 1990s and both diseases continue to affect populations. Today’s oyster populations are a fraction of what they once were but oysters are resilient and continue to grow! Though most of the oyster reefs happen to sit on the New Jersey “side” of the bay, reefs exist throughout and oysters settle wherever they can find habitat. Today’s commercial harvests are considered sustainable, largely due to careful collaboration among local researchers, officials, and fishermen who all communicate and use scientific advice to make informed decisions. For more insight into the history of Delaware Bay oysters, please read PDE’s spring 2005 issue of Estuary News (PDF file).
Learn more about ongoing oyster science and research here.
For more information on the Delaware Bay Oyster Restoration Project, please read our brochure and 2008 update (PDF files). You can also contact Dr. David Bushek of Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory at (856) 785-0074, extension 4327. For more insight into the history of Delaware Bay oysters, please read PDE’s spring 2005 issue of Estuary News, as well as our oyster fact sheet (PDF files).