How Oysters Can Clean Up Water Pollution

Oysters are a delicacy all over the world, but did you know that they have another vital function related to their filter-feeding lifestyle? It turns out that oysters are absolutely fantastic for filtering polluted waters by storing contamination in their shells and tissue.

Organizations like the Billion Oyster Project are explicitly harnessing that ability in environmental cleanup efforts, drawing on the power of nature to clean water and help ecosystems recover from pollution like oil spills, sewage, chemicals, nutrient runoff and more.

Harnessing oysters for this kind of work starts with vast quantities of oyster shells, which young oysters — known as “spat” — love to grow on. Groups reach out to restaurants and seafood processors for discarded shells and create artificial reefs to encourage oysters to start taking root.

It can take up to three years for an oyster to fully mature — and the survivability rate is variable, thanks to the poor conditions in the water. But once a population is established, these organisms can begin filtering. Researchers can snag mature specimens for study to monitor water quality.

That filtration, of course, can mean that the oysters are inedible. In New York, for instance, the presence of sewage in the water makes eating oysters a nonstarter. Even so, their population hasn’t climbed back up anywhere close to where it was when Europeans first arrived. At that time, the area was absolutely teeming with mollusks, growing in thick reefs so dense that they actually impeded navigation. Oyster numbers are starting to rise, though.

The same can be seen in the Chesapeake Bay, once a hotspot for oysters and now the site of a commercial campaign that’s farming them to clean up the environment and generate revenue.

Numerous communities in the Gulf are also using oysters for environmental cleanup, especially in the aftermath of the infamous Deepwater Horizon spill. In these communities, the goal includes both the desire for cleaner water and economic recovery for fisheries that were devastated by the spill. Healthier ecosystems mean better fishing, and the oysters themselves can have commercial value too — showing that sometimes doing the right thing for the planet also leads to doing the right thing for the economy.

Using oysters to clean up existing messes shouldn’t be used as an excuse to avoid limiting pollution, though. Releasing raw sewage, agricultural runoff and more into the water isn’t healthy or sustainable — no matter how many oysters a community seeds. While bivalves can be a cost-effective and low-tech way of resolving environmental problems, preventing those problems by exercising responsible ecological stewardship is vital for the health of communities and the future of the planet.

Incidentally, oysters aren’t the only mollusks who are good at cleaning house. Mussels are similarly valuable for habitat restoration, and they’re sometimes the first arrivals at contaminated sites all on their own, clearing the way for more fragile organisms to follow.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

45 comments

Celine Russo
Celine R25 days ago

I just wonder what happens to the pollutants the oysters ingested if they die or end up eaten...

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Ruth S
Ruth S25 days ago

Thanks.

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Ruth S
Ruth S25 days ago

Thanks.

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Marija M
Marija M25 days ago

tks very much for sharing.

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Frances G
Frances G26 days ago

thank you for sharing

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Julie W
Julie W26 days ago

Catherine, from the article: "That filtration, of course, can mean that the oysters are inedible. In New York, for instance, the presence of sewage in the water makes eating oysters a nonstarter." You would not be allowed to eat them.

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Catherine Z
Catherine Z26 days ago

thanks for sharing this

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Catherine Z
Catherine Z26 days ago

I don't think I want to eat these!

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Vincent T
Vincent T27 days ago

Thank you for sharing

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Nena C
Nena C27 days ago

OH great idea maybe from south from not into eating anything 'raw' period so this is great idea sure hope works out super!

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