Oyster Reefs

This article on the state and future of oyster reefs has spurred the writing of this post. At first look this might seem a stretch for a blog about boats, but boats and oysters have long been intertwined, and the continued health of one does impact the continued health of the other.

This article linked above is one of the few notices in the press I’ve seen concerning the importance of oyster reefs and the relative losses they have suffered in the last century. Every major estuary in the world used to have massive oyster reefs as the grand filtration system that kept them healthy. All of these are in severe trouble, most reduced to a tenth or less of their pre-development levels. We tend to see the problems in estuaries as being caused by too many nutrients/pollutants entering their systems. This is a problem, especially when we are talking about hydro-carbons and heavy-metal pollutants; but the larger problem is that without abundant, massive and gargantuan healthy oyster reefs, no estuary could handle any of the sediment and nutrient run-off expected at the mouth of a major river. What’s true for the great estuaries is equally true for all brackish environments. They are all by definition places where fresh water systems delivering sediment and nutrients meet the sea.

Reading Carter’s Coast of New England is the best way for any contemporary person to get a sense of what has been lost from our coastal marine environments. This journal of a sailing jaunt by four friends in 1858 will knock you over with the matter-of-fact tales of the abundance they encountered all along New England’s shore. Equally astounding should be the matter-of-fact senselessness of the casual death they inflicted on what to them seemed an inexhaustible cornucopia. My own memories of living on Cape Cod in the 1950’s as a child give me a sense of what has been lost since then, the last jarring fall from a hell-of-a-lot to almost nothing-at-all.

The real tragedy of the estuaries and marshes isn’t the same as what’s happened on land. There it’s not been a case of direct surplantation of agriculture to feed humans replacing an ecosystem supporting a broader biota. The problem has been more of a waste of the most productive acreage on the planet for uses that have nothing to do with biomass sustainability and are in many ways directly destructive of its capacities. An oil refinery, or a sports complex, or a sprawling container-port; these all destroy an estuary’s viability without feeding anyone else in any way. Restoring estuarine capacity doesn’t take anything away from our direct ability to feed ourselves while it will provide a tremendous boost to help support all marine life and ourselves over the long run.

I spend most of my time writing about the trouble with looking at our current predicaments as a set of problems begging solutions. Most of the challenges we face are too complex and our inputs too ambiguous. We are better off leaving the problem/solution mindset behind in most cases, but this is one case where the solution is so promising and the challenges so straight forward that it does deserve a second look.

I’ve been thinking about what we could do with the remaining power at our disposal during these difficult times and how we might best put it to use. This is a daunting question, especially if you subscribe to a “Let’s not make things worse by going off half-cocked into elaborate schemes of control!” ethic. Here again, I think the question of oyster reefs – They are reefs, not beds. Oysters don’t just sleep! They are tremendously active creatures! And they don’t just lie there on a “palette” awaiting our exploitation. They are not simply a “resource” they are a force of nature! – This is a place where we can get tremendous results with minimal invasiveness while learning to check our rapaciousness and begin once again to graciously receive bounties we can never deserve.

How does this connect with boats? Look at any of the tiniest “successes” we have in our relationship with oysters and you’ll find sailboats as the defining factor. Those few places where the fisherman’s ethos of “Take a fair catch and leave enough to maintain a bounty beyond our control and understanding.” has remained with any semblance of its earlier force, there are people oystering under sail.  These people placed their lives on the line to hold the line that there was more to life than short-term gain. They are as beleaguered as the oyster and their health and well being is as important to our having a future as is that of the oysters themselves.

This is one of those places where our attitudes towards boats has a tremendous potential impact on how we face our lives and its challenges. There is a give-and-take in such a relationship that is conducive to making good decisions and avoiding short-term cons. We learn from our relationship to our boats and our experiences with them feed how we go on to face life. The history of oystering under sail has been a great example of this, one that’s given us one of the few successes in a long sad trail of defeats.


I’ve asked for guest contributions from the start of this site. So far, with one generous exception, I’ve not heard anyone step-up. Perhaps this topic could be a spark around which to begin a wider conversation. Some of you are professionally involved with boats, are journalists, have various reasons to feel compartmentalized out of the idea of stooping to posting on a “blog,” least of all one as crackpot as this one! I hope this subject is both far enough off your normal lines of endeavor and exciting enough in its prospects to jar you into reconsidering. This is directed at anyone reading this.

If there is to be a project around the idea of Boats for Difficult Times it will require that you not lay back as “consumers” of “content,” but that you find ways in which to engage as fellows who see something worthwhile in the premise. If you do, the easiest way to begin is to write a comment. The next step might be to consider proposing a guest post. From there the sky’s the limit!

I’ve begun this because it is something I find of crucial importance. I don’t want to see the value of boats marginalized to the point where we lose any vital connection with them and then one day decide we can’t “afford” them at all anymore. That day would be tragic in ways that are more far-reaching than it might seem if all we think is that we’re discussing some marginal “hobby.” I think this concept “has legs.” I can’t “prove it” alone. If this is just me spouting and a few people reading and nodding, or shaking their heads quietly to themselves, then this will have failed.

The more organized among you could probably make a better list than I can of the potential openings for further thought and discussion, and hopefully work; that have come up here so far. There just might be one of these that connects with something you find important. If so, let us know! A catalyst may seem a small part of a reaction, but often nothing happens without its help. See if you can’t be a catalyst here!


Oysters are small modest creatures. They are almost invisible and not very viable all alone, but in their multitudes they have done prodigious work! Let’s follow up on how we can help them. They will repay us many-fold!






8 thoughts on “Oyster Reefs

  1. The Wellfleet Audubon Sanctuary has started an Oyster Habitat Restoration in Wellfleet Harbor. Here is the web address of the blog -http://massaudubonblogs.typepad.com/wellfleetbaynews/oyster-habitat-restoration-.html
    I am afraid it is not up to date, but the project started in 2008, and is ongoing. One of the oystermen helping the Audubon carry some the materials used on the project is doing so in a boat I built for him in 1985 or so, a Power Catamaran designed for us by Phil Bolger.

    1. Walter,

      Thank you very much for responding and for your links.

      I’ll get back to you as this initiative gains some momentum.

      Let us know of any other contacts or news that’s pertinent!

    1. So much about our relationship with the sea, with water, comes from the way we are entranced and enchanted by its surface. Visually it can be transparent, translucent, opaque, and reflective. Sometimes it’s a combination of all those qualities at once! It’s also a barrier, one we can cross, imperfectly, with difficulty, and only by suffering a profound disjunction between our normal realm and this alien world. So much of what we’ve allowed to happen to the natural world has come because the consequences are somehow hidden, and don’t force themselves on our attention unless we’re willing to take a closer look. Even then, whether it’s the effects of dragging or the dangers of nuclear pollution, the linkages can stubbornly defy our abilities to perceive what is going on.

    1. I’m sorry for letting my posting lapse here. I do have finite capacities and way too many things pulling me in a variety of directions!

      I’m glad you’ve found this interesting and would like it to continue. One way is to contribute yourself! If you have something you’d like to post here, any of you! then let me know and I’ll see it gets posted. Also, if there’s’ a question you might have or a topic you’d like to see addressed, then send that in as comment.

      Unlike some of my other venues, this place is intended not just as a showcase for what I have to say, but in the hopes of getting a real dialogue going with various voices.

      I’ve recently become part of a group of writers in Provincetown, the Writer’s Voice Café. I’ve been amazed and heartened by the variety of voices and the way they each have something valuable to contribute. This is the kind of thing I’d like to see develop here in relation to our peculiar relationships to Boats for Difficult Times.

  2. we have a terrible problem here in alabama with oyster management.our DNR here is either incompetent or just have a no give a crap attitude about our natural resources.i believe a heathy marine enviroment can only thrive with heathy oyster reefs and over the last 10 or so years alabama has received millions of dollars in grants from ivan/katrina funds to help restore our shellfish habitat and to no avail.they have hauled thousands of yards of oysters off perfectly healthy oyster reefs in waters they say are polluted to places where an oyster reef has never exsited and dump them back into places where they never have a chance to make it.this has been done twice over last couple years on top of the thousands of yards of crushed limestone and oyster shell they have piled up so deep in places that you run aground on it in 5ft of water.These projects were supposed to put the oysterman back to work and the monies spent on this so called oyster restoration vs overall rvenue taken in from harvesting from these sites totally laughable.What can be done when the people responsible for our resources are not competent enough or care enough to sustain or enhance what we have?

    1. Troy,

      Thank you for your response!

      You’ve touched on all the salient points confronting us in this and in so many other things. The “authorities” who have the power are incompetent or at least increasingly irrelevant because of the way they have squandered their opportunities to do anything truly helpful.

      There are no easy and clear answers to this. For myself, I’ve recently connected with a local effort to seed Bay Scallops in our Salt Pond, and hope to volunteer this summer to help out with the work.

      Direct involvement may be a way to gain insights into what is actually taking place and may provide opportunities to help shape how things go forward.

      Trusting in existing institutions already in place to “do it for us” will not lead to good results. I don’t believe that confrontation “demanding change!” will do much either. Both of these responses accept the assumption that we are passive by-standers and “consumers,” instead of engaging directly as people, as creatures, who have a stake in what happens.

      Good to hear from you and I hope we can widen the circle even further!

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