While no larger than the palm of a hand, oysters play a vital role in marine environments, and biologists are trying to make sure they stay around.
"Oysters are essentially the wonder of the coastal ecosystem," said Daniel Harris, coordinator of the oyster mapping and oyster restoration project of the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service.
The numbers of these seaside superheroes have declined to extremely low levels because of centuries of overharvesting along the Georgia coast, the state Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division and the extension service concluded from a joint project in 2003.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, oysters were a top commercial crop for the state. So much so that the now-Peach State was once the No. 1 producer of canned oysters in the world. The shells of the mollusk were also highly used, being ground into chicken feed or crushed for use in roadway and home construction.
"Because oysters were such an in-demand crop and were not being replaced as they were being taken from area waters, their population just dropped," Harris said.
Today, environmentalists and conservationists like Harris and his extension service team are working to replenish the oyster population through the Georgia Enhancement Oyster Restoration in Georgia Inshore Areas program, also known more simply as GEORGIA.
Project planners gather oyster shells from donation drop-off centers throughout the year. They also collect shells from coastal restaurants and charity oyster roasts.
Bag after bag of the hard shells are dropped into areas of water in need of oyster reefs. The hope is that the oyster larva will attach to the surfaces and create a new reef.
"Oysters are a keystone species and have very important roles in coastal areas. It's crucial to have a healthy population of oyster reefs in our waters," Harris said. "The more reefs an area has, the better off they are."
In addition to being popular for roasts, oysters have a healing power for coastal waterways. The mollusks are filter-feeders and purify water, absorbing bacteria and reducing health risks to humans.
Because oysters ingest bacteria from the water, it is important for consumers to take note of where the oysters they purchase have been harvested. Oyster catchers should only do so in permitted areas, where the water is cleaner, to reduce health risks.
"All restaurants have to serve oysters from designated areas, and oyster harvesters need a license to collect them from these specified locations," Harris said. "That's the law, and it is for safety."
Oysters are more than just a food source. Oyster reefs reduce harmful wave energy, sparing shorelines from erosion. Oyster reefs also create habitats in which other marina life can thrive, providing shelter and food for crustaceans and fish.
Because oyster larva cannot flourish on Georgia's muddy creek and river beds, the bags of shells dropped by Harris and co-workers are critical to managing the oyster population, he said. The species must have a hard surface on which to attach and grow.
Most recently, Harris and staff worked near Andrews Beach on Jekyll Island, where beach advisories for high bacteria concentrations have been a long-term problem because of wildlife. They used the shells to create reefs in Clam Creek on the north end of the state-owned island.
Because it takes a long time to confirm data and develop trends, a problem compounded by unexpectedly high tides and other environment factors, it has been difficult to determine scientifically how effective the reef projects have been.
Harris noted, however, that fewer beach advisories have been issued in these areas and beach erosion appears to have slowed. He also noted that more oysters, shrimp, crabs and fish are taking up residence on or near reefs. All that, he said, points to positive signs.
"Most people have no idea that oysters are such a powerful force in the water," Harris said. "But they have so many healing powers and such ability to stop erosion, clean water and build habitats. They really are quite amazing."
Help rebuild nature
The G.E.O.R.G.I.A. project to restore oyster beds always needs oyster shell donations. Shells can be taken any time to the Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division headquarters, 1 Conservation Way, Brunswick, and from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays and during daylight weekends to the Jekyll Island recycling center, South Riverview Drive. Shells also will be collected from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 1 at CoastFest at the DNR building.