Revitalizing oyster farms and wild oyster reefs could undo decades of environmental destruction on our coasts
In the summers of the early 1970s, in the days before developers launched bidding wars over waterfront real estate, before the Delaware beaches drew long lines of tourists and traffic, the children living on Lewes Beach would perch in the windows overlooking the shore and scream out when the water started to roil, shimmer, and splash.
Carol Friend—seven or eight or nine at the time—would run with her 10 older siblings down to the sand, clutching fishing poles and nets, and throw them into the water. The lines would come out jerking and glittering, straining under the weight of bluefish gasping for air. If the water splashed too violently—indicating a possible shark in a gluttonous frenzy—the children would remain on the sand. On other days, they would shove their bodies into the ocean, amid the schools; sometimes puffer fish would drift so close that they could become air-filled balloons for the children to bounce and toss and catch across the beach.
The water was always clear to the bottom. The schools passing close to shore were part of the summer routine.
Friend’s family eventually moved off the beach. She still spent time on the water, but she also had a life to live. While many of her brothers pursued futures as watermen—some fishing, some clamming—she would spend a 35-year career working for the United States Postal Service. Over the course of those same 35 years, the abundant schools of fish in this part of Delaware would shrink, drift farther from the coastline, and eventually become just a memory. The shoreline water appeared to thicken and grew almost opaque. According to a 2016 report, eel grasses virtually disappeared in the 1970s and never recovered. Blue-crab catches declined by about 50% from the mid-1990s to 2015, and catches of bay anchovy—important for bait and as food for larger fish—declined by about 40% over the same period.
“I don’t see any of the life down there that used to be there as a kid in the ’70s,” Friend, now 61 and retired from the post office, told MIT Technology Review.
In her retirement, Friend has taken on a difficult job. She is one of the 10 people in Delaware currently trying to make it as a cultivated oyster farmer. Her Salty Witch Oyster Company holds a lease to grow the gooey mollusks as part of the state’s new program for aquaculture (first launched in 2017), which has sputtered despite its obvious promise.
The story of oyster aquaculture in the Delaware Inland Bays—about 32 square miles of water draining into the Atlantic Ocean that make up a 320-square-mile watershed—is an object lesson for the rest of the world.
Introducing aquaculture where none exists can simultaneously clean heavily polluted waters and provide local economic opportunity. It’s a rare instance of a straightforward environmental solution that can also provide financial opportunity for the people most affected by the problem in the first place. Aquaculture involves oyster farming in cages for commercial purposes. Farmed oysters in Delaware are particularly salty, a quality prized by connoisseurs of raw oysters on the half shell. The area’s restaurants, mostly seafood spots thriving on tourism along the Delaware beaches, are ready-made customers eager for a local product to sell.
The state even has a shining example to emulate. Just south of the Delaware Inland Bays sits the Chesapeake, the greatest success story in the United States for oyster aquaculture and restoration as a combined environmental and economic boon. The Chesapeake is the largest estuary in the United States, and it was once home to some of the most overharvested and polluted waters in the world. Thousands of acres of Chesapeake tributaries have been reseeded with wild oysters, and farmed oysters have become at least a $30 million industry for Virginia and Maryland.
Early research on Harris Creek—one of the Chesapeake tributaries—suggested that even modest oyster populations there could remove about 20,000 pounds of nitrogen (one of the main pollutants in US coastal estuaries) per year—if not more. The density of juvenile crabs, small and larger fish species, and invertebrates that serve as fish food all increased around restored oyster reefs, early signs of wildlife diversity in the Chesapeake similar to what Friend remembers from her childhood in the nearby Inland Bays.