New Hampshire’s Great Bay
If you want to do your part to replenish New Hampshire’s oyster culture in the Great Bay estuary, follow these two simple steps.
First, eat more Eastern oysters farmed in the crisp, cold subtidal waters of Little Bay to encourage the budding industry to raise even more bi-valves there.
Second, recycle the shells once you’ve slurped down the slightly salty, sort of buttery bi-valves to help rebuild the oyster reefs in the region as a natural habitat for a host of sea creatures.
Oysters are an ecological linchpin in any estuary they live because, as filter feeders, they provide water quality regulation services by eating microscopic phytoplankton. Phytoplankton is crucial to overall marine life in the right amounts, but if there are too many nutrients in the water – such as nitrates, phosphates, and sulfur – they can grow out of control and form harmful algae blooms that can either deplete oxygen levels or increase toxins in the water. Oysters keep them in check.
Currently there are 16 licensed farms up and running in Little Bay, taking up a total of 50 acres and producing a half-million edible oysters annually. There are literally millions more oysters growing in those same waters because it takes three years for one to mature to regulation size for sale. Most are raised in bags where they can filter the brackish water at a rate of 20 to 50 gallons per day. The industry is highly regulated. The oysters and the water in which they thrive are routinely tested for contaminants.
Scientist believe there used to be as many as 1,000 acres of natural oyster reef in the estuary in 1970, but over 90% of the wild oysters living there were lost due to pollution, harvest, and disease. Without a healthy oyster population, the Great Bay estuary was lacking the natural filtration capacity to maintain healthy eelgrass beds and fish nurseries as nitrogen and siltation increased, until the modern age of oyster farming was ushered into Little Bay in 2004.
Full-time University of New Hampshire zoology professor and part-time oyster farmer Ray Grizzle is leading a team of researchers looking at just how much raising oysters in the estuary will help mitigate the estuary’s increased nitrogen issues. In early findings published last year, the scientists found that nitrogen in farmed oysters varied depending on oyster size, the farm site, oyster age, seasonal variability, water quality, and time of harvest. But the chemical element was always in their composition, meaning that every oyster pulled out of the bay takes with it some of the excess nitrogen. Hard numbers are not yet available, but Grizzle estimates it’s likely to be less than five percent. A small dent, but a dent nonetheless.
Nitrogen mitigation is only one ecosystem services oyster farms can offer to the area. Grizzle points out that the farms are providing a much needed habitat for fledgling sea creatures. “Eel grass has always been protected because it acts as a nursery for a mix of commercially valuable sea life. We need to answer the question of whether or not the oyster farms can provide those same habitats,” said Grizzle.
The oysters in the farms are also releasing oyster spawn into the water column, potential baby oysters, but they need something to hold onto: a substrate (or hard, calcium surface). That’s where the voluntary oyster shell recycling program comes in. Started in 2009 by The Nature Conservancy and the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), this volunteer-run operation is fed spent oyster shells by eight area restaurants including Jumpin' Jay's Fish Café and The Franklin Oyster House in Portsmouth, Robert's Maine Grill in Kittery, Newick's of Dover, The Old Salt in Hampton, Riverworks in Newmarket, Hayseed Restaurant at Smuttynose and York River Landing in York.
The Franklin Oyster House has participated in the shell recycling program since its opening day in 2015. Chef Matt Louis says during the winter his team recycles 10,000 shells per month and twice that in high season. CCA provides the bins, Louis’s staff keeps the shells separate from other forms of waste, and volunteers from CCA come and pick them up. The shells are dried, quarantined, and then added back into the bay. About two dozen acres have been created to date to help provide a place for the next generation of Great Bay oysters to land.
The lesson here? Waste not your oyster shells and want not for more oysters.