Hope on the Halfshell

Hope on the Halfshell

The humble mollusk: superhero
Friday, June 13, 2014
Great Bay in Durham

Photo credit: Lisa Nugent

And then there's the oyster, an unlikely superhero that has recently been enlisted to help save the bay. Because a single oyster filters up to 40 gallons of water a day simply by dining on plankton, oyster reefs create massive natural filtration systems. "They function like kidneys for the bay," says Ray Grizzle, research professor of zoology at UNH.

Not so long ago, the Great Bay estuary was loaded with oysters—more than 1,000 acres of them. Today, there are barely 100 acres left, the population decimated by disease, pollution, and over harvesting. But Grizzle and Ray Konisky '03G, marine conservation ecologist for The Nature Conservancy's Oyster Conservationist Program, are on a mission to restore the humble mollusk--as are some 58 local "oyster sitters" who have volunteered to help reestablish the population.

Restoring oyster beds is painstaking work. It starts with clamshells—100 tons of them—trucked in from a Rhode Island seafood processor, cleaned and dried, and then loaded onto a barge. Next, a 150-horsepower pump rigged to a power hose blasts shell across the water in 50-foot swaths, covering the muddy bottom, creating a starter home for baby oysters, which need a solid surface to cling to as they grow. The idea is that, with a head start, the mollusks will rebuild a reef, creating a giant natural water-filtering machine. It's slow going, though. It's taken five years to build just 15 acres.
The citizen oyster program provides just a fraction of the oysters for the restored reefs, but the program is growing and has been such a success that each season concludes with an awards ceremony. The good-natured competition can be fierce, with awards for Best Survival Rate, Greatest Number of Oysters in One Cage, Cleanest Oysters Ever, and, of course, Biggest Oyster.

Steve Weglarz '83 working with his family on Great Bay

Great Bay oyster farmer, Steve Weglarz '83, hauls oysters from the  water with his family on a November afternoon. (Photo credit: Larry Landolfi)

On the menu for the 2013 ceremony were Cedar Point oysters grown by Steve Weglarz '83, one of about 10 oyster farmers who have recently set up shop in Great Bay—and become part of the restoration team. High-density farms, explains Konisky, where thousands of mollusks grow suspended in a relatively small space, could become an important supplement to reef rebuilding efforts.

A few weeks after the awards ceremony, on a raw November afternoon, Weglarz and his four kids are standing at the edge of the bay hauling oyster gear from the water. It's the last task of the season before winter settles in. To the west, just below the spot on the opposite shore where the sun is slipping from view, 200,000 oysters stacked in two dozen 4-foot high "condos" float in the icy brine, ready to wait out the winter in hibernation. Weglarz's three boys, Dylan, Jake, and Liam, untangle ropes and buoys, pulling bits of sea lettuce from the empty condos, then strap the gear to the trailer. Back home, they'll repair and rig the equipment for spring, when the boat will go back in the water, and it'll be time to start working the farm again. Little sister Mia grabs a mesh bag, empty of oysters and in need of cleaning. "I feel some real responsibility to take care of this planet," says Weglarz, who hopes that his oyster farm will play a small part in the ongoing effort to "save our shores" and that he himself will be part of another group of determined citizens banding together to change history. If we do it right, he hopes, his own children will find a better bay waiting for them when they grow up.

Originally published by: 

UNH Magazine

Written by Suki Casanave '86G