Killing Our Servants in Their Shells

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Religious texts prohibit certain religious persons from consuming shellfish and other foods, but for the rest of us who can, it’s a treat that is often expensive. Is that why we want them? Why are they so expensive? Two questions that aren’t easily answered because of the variables involved. Yeah, I know, don’t talk to you about variables. How about factors or profit margins, would those be acceptable to you?

For now, let me stick to the scientist in me as well as the gourmand (yup, not exactly a gourmet) and look at some interesting things that have cropped up in terms of our little bits of delight, shellfish. Specifically, I’m referring to a select group that I’m restricting to oysters, clams and mussels.

The group of three to which I refer are called “filter feeders” because, via a valve system in their bodies, they take in nutrient-filled water and then expel it cleaned out through another valve system. These little gems literally clean up our waterways wherever they can find a spot that suits them or where we have placed them and they are, as one expert said, the “canaries in the waterways.” Much like those caged birds that miners took down into the coal shafts, these bivalves (two shelled) let us know when the system is in trouble or danger.

New York City was once a thriving hub of oyster production and the waters in the rivers and the bays benefited, keeping a lively trade alive and people employed. Even the fact that women weren’t allowed into oyster bars didn’t put a dent in their business. In fact, much of Manhattan is a filled-in area where swamps, inlets and streams were landscape landmarks. One famous stream still runs beneath and through Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village and a tavern has taken its name; Minetta.

The history of the city is one of dependence on the oyster trade which prospered from the riches of the 350 sq. miles of oyster reefs that produced most of the world’s oysters. The waters benefited, the trade thrived, and all was well until the air became polluted with the smoke produced by burning oyster shells for the lime they contained. Solution: prohibit this burning in the city. Not such a good solution to satisfy the ravenous diners of the city; over-harvesting. It knocked the trade back on its heels and, along with the raw sewage dumped into the rivers, the decline was steep.

Thanks to the efforts of groups such as the Billion Oyster Project that is seeding the Hudson and has managed to bring back some of the oyster reefs, intelligence is checkmating rapacious diners now. The same type of environmental actions is working to save another home of the oyster, The Chesapeake Bay area. I recall being on a college committee that decided which dissertation deserved the one for outstanding contribution to knowledge. Once I read the manuscript by a woman involved in an oyster project there, I was sold. The others couldn’t hold a candle to her thorough and far-reaching thinking on what needed to be done to save that birthing area of shellfish. The famous crabs would benefit, too.

But another problem is on the horizon and this one isn’t so simply solved; climate change. As those with not-so-hidden agendas deny climate change we are seeing its terrible ravages. A town in the far northern regions where polar bears stalk the icy lands saw one starving animal come into town, desperate for food. It was caught, saved and sent to a refuge. But that animal is more than a signal to us; it is a huge red flag. No one can deny it.

Shellfish, specifically mussels, in California are now dying, cooked in their shells by the blistering sunshine they endure at low tide. These wonderful little bivalves anchor themselves onto the bits of land jutting out into the oceans where they open up, filter and then close to protect themselves from the sun. But when water temperatures rise and the sun beats down mercilessly and higher than usual, they have no hope. We cannot save them, and they are dying. Beachcombers in California, along a shoreline over 100 miles long view the untimely fate of these little servants of the environment that are killed in their shells. The wild ones may die off completely and we will be left solely with those that are raised and harvested by shellfish farmers here and abroad. In that, we lose another piece of the main.

Clams are less fragile because they bury themselves in the sand in areas where, should the tide go out, they still have a few inches of moist sand to protect them. Walk along a beach and when you see a sudden squirt of water, you know you’ve hit a clam. In some ways, it’s reassuring but clams aren’t in the large communities that are inhabited by oysters and mussels. They provide what they can but not in sufficient quantities.

The next time you go into the famed hundred-year-old Oyster Bar in New York’s Grand Central Station and order any of the shellfish, say a quiet thanks for their very existence. These canaries are now being harvested from special farms on Long Island and other areas of the world because, unlike what Maurice Sendak so beautifully illustrated, this is where the wild things are.

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