You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Oyster’ tag.

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Today we head to the other side of the world to check out a very special mollusk— the black lip oyster (Pinctada margaritifera). This oyster is a suspension feeder which thrives in tropical coral seas amidst the colorful darting fish, exquisite anemones, and amazing biodiversity of reef life. The black lip oyster lives from the Persian Gulf, throughout the northern Indian Ocean across the IndoPacific divide up to Japan and around the islands of Micronesia, and Polynesia. However it is not the oyster’s (enviable) lifestyle that makes it famous, but what it produces –Tahitian pearls aka black pearls.
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Tahitian pearls are one of the four great categories of cultured pearls. They occur in a rainbow variety of colors but mostly are charcoal, silver, or dark green with an iridescent sheen of green, purple, silver, blue, or gold. Since the black lip oyster is an exceedingly large mollusk, which can grow to weight of more than 4 kilograms (8-10 pounds), it can produce a capacious harvest of cultured pearls and can also produce extremely large pearls. The name black pearls is evocative and poetic and descriptive (since the pearls are dark), however true black Tahitian pearls are rare and precious.
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When I was growing up in southwest Ohio, far from the beach, I remember encountering all sorts of stories concerning black pearls–thrilling tales of pearl divers, pirates, mermaid, giant Manta rays and such-like exoticism of a past era–however seemingly the internet, globalized commerce, and industrial aquaculture have taken some of the luster from these bright dreams (or do preadolescents still have feverish conversations about black pearls?). Maybe that was all because of the eighties and that decades taste for the darkly exotic and colorful….yet whatever the tastes and tides of fashion, I still find black pearls remarkably beautiful, and I would like to seek out some crowns and myths for you to adorn Ferrebeekeeper’s mollusk category. Hopefully I can avoid being cursed by a manta ray spirit (which, in retrospect, sounds beautiful and gentle)…but I promise nothing!
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So…hey…what ever happened to that attempt to repopulate Jamaica Bay with lovable good-hearted, filter-feedin’ oysters? Ummm…well…it turns out that the colony failed.  The poor oysters who made it to adulthood were unable to procreate (or, at least, their offspring were not able to attach to anything in Jamaica Bay).  Fortunately, the oysters’ human friends are not licked yet and have a whole new weird project afoot…but before we get to that, let’s turn back the clock and look at the bigger picture of oysters in our area!

New York was once renowned for its oysters.  By some estimates, up through the 1600s every other oyster in the world lived in New York’s harbors and bays!  During the early 19th century, every other oyster harvested in the world was certainly taken from these waters.  The oysters filtered the entire bay of algae, microbes, and pollutants.  They also prevented the harbor from eroding away—it was like the entire waterway was coated with hard calcium carbonate (in fact it was exactly like that).   Not only did the tough New York oysters prevent underwater erosion, they also stabilized the coastline and bore the brunt of storm surges.  What tremendous mollusks! But alas, we were too hungry and too greedy and too careless…. By the end of the 1800s the population had crashed.  Attempts to revive the poor oysters have consistently failed. (just follow that link up at the top).

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However ecologists, oceanographers, and oyster fanciers have not quit trying.  In fact with the aid of a variety of partners they are mounting the biggest attempt yet to restore Oysters to New York City’s bays and waterways. The New York Times details the agencies which have invested in the project:

The project is funded by a $1 million grant from the United States Interior Department’s Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program. The Environmental Protection Department, which is contributing $375,000, is working with the Billion Oyster Project, an ecosystem restoration and education project that is trying to restore one billion oysters to New York Harbor.

It is good to have money (I have heard), however, there is also a secret ingredient to this project.  New York’s education department has been replacing all of the NY Public School’s bathroom fixtures with environmentally efficient toilets.  The old porcelain toilets are being smashed to bits to form an artificial reef where the young oysters can get started.  Five thousand public school toilets have been broken up and added to the project.  These fixtures have served generations of New York’s humans in a necessary albeit lowly capacity.  Let us hope they can get a couple of generations of oysters up and going in their second career (as smashed detritus on the bottom of Jamaica Bay)!  We’ll report more as we know more so stay tuned.

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The magnificent shell of Spondylus regius

When I was a child, I had a shell collection.  Some of my shells were ordinary things which I picked up on the beach. Others were handsome store-bought shells which were given to me as presents.  The most beautiful shells which I had were gifts from my grandparents–world-travelers who had lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia as the cold war played out and colonialism ended.  They gave me my favorite shell, a beautiful red spiny oyster shell which I kept on my desk wherever I moved (until it was destroyed, out of spite, by my first lover). Humankind’s fascination with the spiny oyster goes back a long way.  To add to the Ferrebeekeeper mollusk thread, here are some pictures and facts about the Spondylidae family (aka the thorny oysters or spiny oysters).  These bivalve mollusks are relatives to the scallops, but, like the oysters, they cement themselves to one location.  Filter feeders of the reef, all of the various species of Spondylus have ball and socket hinges (whereas most bivalves have toothed hinges).  Live Spondylus shellfish are like tiny reefs in their own right supporting a rich community of algaes, hydroids, tubeworms, and other invertebrates on their spiny shells.

A living Spondylus varius on a coral reef

To quote CoralMorphologic which films amazing close-up videos of invertebrates and is the source of the thorny oyster eyes photo below, “Unlike most shallow-water oyster species, the thorny oyster is a solitary creature that lives permanently cemented to the deeper coral reef.  Its fleshy mantle is adorned with sepia-toned psychedelic camouflage that can vary widely from one individual to the next.   The rim of the mantle is lined with dozens of eyes that stare out into the depths.  These eyes are quite simple, only detecting changes in light that might suggest an incoming predator.  If a threat is detected, the oyster will quickly snap its two shells together, sealing the animal inside with its two powerful adductor muscles.”

Spondylus eyes seen close-up (a screen capture from an amazing CoralMorphologic video)

The desire to collect spiny oysters is much older than civilization.  Bangles made of the shells and were found in Mediterranean archaeological excavations dating from the Mesolithic period.  Ornaments made from the shells were found in the Varna necropolis, the burial ground of the the Eneolithic Varna culture located in what is today Bulgaria.  Almost 7000 years ago the people of central Europe were trading something for Spondylus shells from the Aegean.  That was before Eridu raised up from the mud and civilization got rolling in earnest.  Apparently one could trade spiny oyster shells for goods and services before you could buy a beer!

The Moche society which flourished in Ecuador and Northern Peru from 100 AD – 800 AD, made the most extensive ritual use of  Spondylus shells in their ceremonies and art.  Spondylus shells (and vessels shaped like them) were believed to have held the blood obtained from ritual human sacrifice and torture.  Not only did the Moche worship the sea and the creatures therein, one of their principal deities was a spider/crab who thrived on blood sacrifice.  The shape and color of the spiny oyster shell seem to have made the shells a favorite material for votive offerings and grave goods for that formidable people.

The head of a Moche Deity (Gold with carved Spondylus shell teeth)

Jamaica Bay (Photo: Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

New York City is fortunate to have a thriving wetland inside the city. Visitors who have flown in or out of JFK have seen the huge intertidal salt marsh known as Jamaica Bay which lies along the boder of Brooklyn and Queens.  Unfortunately the wetland has been eroding away into the Atlantic Ocean.  This is partly because the east coast is a receding coastline and partly because of overdevelopment: there are numerous large sewage treatment facilities around the bay.  The City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been trying to clean up the bay and prevent the loss of a uniquely beautiful wilderness.  To do so they will need allies…little gray faceless allies. 

Jamaica Bay is there at the bottom right

Jamaica Bay is still host to 120 species of bird and 48 species of fish, however one particular keystone life form has gone missing. During the last 5 decades the Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) has vanished entirely from Jamaica Bay. The mollusks used to be so plentiful as to be a hindrance to navigation, but they gradually fell victim to overfishing and the pollution caused by 8 million pushy, pushy New Yorkers. 

All of this was true until two days ago (October 5, 2010) when the city laid down huge beds of oyster shells and reseeded Jamaica bay with endearing baby oysters.  The DEP has spent hundreds of millions of dollars modernizing and improving the water treatment plants around the bay to shrink nitrogen levels and give the oysters a fighting chance.

Artist's Conception of Jamaica Bay at present

Hopefully the young oysters will thrive and again become a backbone of the recovering bay ecosystem.  There are terrible perils out there facing the stalwart bivalves.  Stressed oysters are susceptible to two horrid diseases known as “Dermo and “MSX“, both virulent pathogens with the names of German industrial bands.  If the little mollusks can establish a foothold, filter feeding oysters are an immense boon to water quality.  One large adult can clean up to 48 gallons of water in 24 hours.  I’m rooting enthusiastically for the new neighbors. 

"They never asked to be heroes."

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