Oysters: an unsung hero in a changing climate

overhead view of cluster of oysters ready to be shipped

In the face of the escalating climate crisis, and ever more alarming headlines, it’s time to acknowledge the quiet climate heroes working in places we don’t see, making a difference for our planet. Oysters, in all their stunning variety and storied reputation for pearls and elegant cuisine, play an exemplary—if often unacknowledged—role in mitigating the effects of our warming planet.

Oyster is a common name for a variety of fascinating salt-water dwelling bivalve mollusks. Their shells look awfully similar to rocks—irregular in shape, often resembling a lopsided oval or a teardrop. Oysters used to be so common along American shorelines that they were grilled and sold along the streets of New York City as cheap, fast food, the shells piling up on the streets and in the harbors by the thousands. Over the years, over-harvesting, pollution, disease, and habitat loss have led to a severe drop in oyster populations. Though less common today, many efforts are underway to help oyster populations. One important reason for this? Oysters are power players in the fight against climate change.

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Superpower: water quality enhancers

In some circles, oysters are already well-known for their ecological importance. They’re filter feeders and greatly improve water quality. More specifically, oysters clean the water as they eat. As they extract phytoplankton and organic matter from the water column, they improve water clarity, remove excess nutrients, and enhance overall water quality. Cleaner water means a healthier ocean with more plant and animal life, both of which increase the ocean’s capacity to sequester carbon.

How this helps combat climate change 
The ocean generates 50% of the oxygen we need to survive and absorbs 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions. Healthy oceans will absorb more CO2. A robust ocean ecosystem is vital to protect Earth’s natural capacity to manage carbon in our atmosphere and fight global warming.

Superpower: habitat creators

Oyster reefs, formed by the aggregation of oyster shells, create a complex habitat that nurtures an array of marine life. These reefs are crucial spawning grounds and nurseries for various fish species. Picture oysters as master builders, creating intricate structures that provide a myriad of ecological benefits. Their reef formations create microhabitats, attracting diverse marine life, from tiny crustaceans to larger fish species. These thriving ecosystems support local fisheries and contribute to the overall resilience of marine ecosystems.

How this helps biodiversity
Providing a safe home and breeding ground increases the biodiversity of an area.

Superpower: coastal protection guardians

Oyster reefs are natural buffers against coastal erosion and storm surges. As oyster shells cluster and build out the surrounding reef system they dissipate wave energy, shielding shorelines from the full force of storms. By safeguarding coastal areas, oyster reefs help protect human communities and vital coastal ecosystems from the devastating impacts of climate-related events. Oyster reefs act as natural breakwaters, reducing the impact of waves and helping prevent coastal erosion. Coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, marshes, and seagrasses store large amounts of carbon, so protecting these ecosystems from erosion helps maintain these carbon sinks.

How this helps with climate change
At the same time that we address the causes of climate change by reducing emissions and sequestering carbon, we must also confront the impacts of a warming planet. Oyster reefs help protect coastal communities facing more frequent and more powerful storms, coastal erosion, and saltwater incursion.

Superpower: carbon capture titans

Oysters possess a remarkable ability to capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Oysters extract carbon ions from seawater to build their shells, in a process called calcification. In fact, a single oyster can filter and process up to 50 gallons of water each day, effectively sequestering carbon within their shell structures.

Product from an oyster farming operation near Boca de Camichin, Nayarit, Mexico

How this helps with climate change
Meeting the climate challenge involves three things: reducing carbon emissions, sequestering excess carbon from the atmosphere, and managing the impacts of a warming planet as they affect nature and our communities. The natural ability of oysters to extract and store carbon from the atmosphere is a notable contributor to climate solutions.

Superpower: Low-impact protein provider

Oysters are nutritious, providing low-fat protein, and are packed with vitamin D, vitamin B12, and lots of minerals and Omega-3 fatty acids. To grow, oysters do not require additional nutrients or food sources other than what is already in their water habitat. They don’t pollute the water they grow in, they clean it. There aren’t many sources of protein that can be commercially farmed and claim to leave the environment they are raised in cleaner than they found it.

How this helps with climate change
As our food systems are challenged by a changing climate and our need to find climate-friendly food sources increases, oysters can be a nutritious, plentiful protein source.

In a world grappling with the impacts of climate change, oysters stand out as climate change heroes. Their ability to protect coastlines, enhance water quality, create thriving ecosystems, capture carbon dioxide, and provide plentiful protein makes them invaluable allies in our fight against a warming planet. We need to support the important work these unassuming mollusks do, by safeguarding their habitats and promoting their critical role in building a more sustainable future. They’re doing their part. Now let’s do ours.

Learn more about other wildlife climate heroes.

An oyster farm off of Fishers Island, New York