Where Have All the Oysters Gone?

Climate Change May Ruin Your Next Seafood Night
Seafood lovers hooked on $1 oyster nights may soon have to find a new source of comfort for the work-week blues.

Thanks to an increase of carbon in both the atmosphere and our water bodies (which absorb about a third of all carbon emissions), carbon munching critters like crabs, lobsters and shrimp are getting bigger and hungrier, say scientists at the University of North Carolina’s Aquarium Research Center. After analyzing blue crabs from the Chesapeake Bay in tanks pumped full of carbon, researchers found that the crabs grew nearly four times faster in high-carbon tanks versus low-carbon tanks.

Though bigger crabs sound like a delicious side effect of climate change, they’re not all that they’re cracked up to be, since crabs tend to put all their energy into building larger shells, not meatier flesh. Even worse, super-sized crabs with equally super-sized appetites could also affect the rest of the typical seafood platter, since bigger crabs will no doubt be eating bigger helpings of other seagoing creatures, like oysters.

Unfortunately, voracious crabs aren’t the only thing that oysters have to worry about. Because oceans are one of the world’s greatest carbon sinks, taking in 22 million tons of carbon dioxide every day, ocean chemistry is changing rapidly. This is putting a strain on shelled creatures like oysters, shellfish and corals that don’t like acid baths because they depend on a pH-balanced lifestyle to build their calcium carbonate shells.

Besides a shortage of oysters in the seafood bar, climate change’s effects on oysters could also negatively impact the quality of water bodies across the country. Like other filter feeders, oysters play a key role in marine ecosystems by filtering algae and providing habitat and shelter for animals and underwater plants. Given that the U.S. EPA now considers more than half of the nation’s rivers and streams to be in “poor” condition thanks to various pollution sources, we could need more oysters, not fewer, to clean up our ecological mess.

In the meantime, Earthjustice is taking up the slack of our oyster friends by working in the courts to stop water pollution at its source. On the west coast, our lawyers won a huge victory in bringing Washington State’s stormwater program into the 21st century by establishing the requirement for local jurisdictions to clean their stormwater using green design techniques. And on the east coast, our Florida office is working to stop pollution (that primarily comes from agriculture and other operations that discharge fertilizer and sewage into waterways.

Nationally, we’re taking this issue straight to the White House by pushing for the Obama administration to make good on its promise to restore longstanding Clean Water Act protections, which were gutted in the 2000s by two confusing Supreme Court decisions. Help us put pressure on the White House by telling the Obama administration that when it comes to protecting our water, it’s time to sink or swim.