Thoughts from a Shellfish Biologist at the Turn of the Century

Bivalve shellfish first appeared on this planet in the Early Cambrian about 600 million years ago. When you have been around that long, a new century, a new millennium, even a thousand new millennia don’t really seem like too big a deal. Except for ice ages, periodic meteor impacts, and the occasional evolution of a new species of predatory crab, one suspects things were pretty quiet for the ancestral bivalves. Even the Dawn of Man was probably taken with a grain of (sea)salt!
It has been jokingly said it was a brave and probably very hungry person who first ate a raw oyster -- one small slurp for a man (or woman) and one gastronomic leap for mankind! There is little doubt that the human species began consuming shellfish very early in its own history. As local Native American midden heaps confirm, people with access to the coast consumed plenty of shellfish. But even thousands of years of seaside clambakes, didn’t put much of a dent in shellfish populations. 

As with many of our national natural resources, it was not until the end of the 18oo’s that our increasing numbers and advancing technology had any significant impacts on the natural shellfish populations. In this country, pollution and over harvesting only became realities in the last century. 

The same science and technology responsible for our dilemma have been directed towards solutions. Interestingly, shellfish were the "canaries of the sea" which first alerted us to the dangerous consequences of the disposal of human sewage in the nation’s surface waters. Outbreaks of hepatitis and typhoid tied to the consumption of shellfish from contaminated waters led to nationwide concern for the bacterial pollution of our surface waters which eventually led to the development of sewage treatment systems, long-term water monitoring programs and significant improvements in water quality. To this day, the shellfish industry and good water quality are linked; each dependent upon and supporting the other. A thriving shellfish industry will be the best insurance of good water quality into the 21st century.

Science and technology have, likewise, been enlisted to address problems of increasing demand and decreasing stocks. Early shellfish culture experiments at the federal laboratory in Milford, Connecticut in the 1950’s were harbingers of the rapidly growing shellfish aquaculture of today. The Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group can proudly claim to be playing a role in both the development of aquaculture technology and the local growth of this " green" industry. In 1980 we built and have since operated the nation’s first public solar-assisted shellfish hatchery. We pioneered hatchery and field cultivation methods for the bay scallop. Today, our successful hatchery and bay scallop culture methods are being copied up and down the east coast. Likewise, our Private Aquaculture Initiative which retrained fishermen asaquaculturists has been a model for similar efforts elsewhere. The turn of the century finds us as partners involved in cutting edge research in bay scallop genetics and oyster diseases with Woods Hole scientists. We look forward to a future where scientific advances in breeding, disease control and management fulfill the "blue revolution’s" promise to feed the growing human global population.

Of all the scientific advances of the 20th century, I believe the development of the scientific discipline of ecology, which seeks to study how everything is connected to everything else, will in the long run have the greatest impact. Our continued existence depends upon maintaining the balance of nature. The imbalances brought about by our advancing technologies threaten to be our doom. The science of ecology holds the key to help us understand the impacts of our technologies and keep everything in balance.

Ecology teaches us that shellfish play a key role in that balance. In recent years, there has been an increasing understanding and appreciation of the crucial role of filter feeding shellfish to the stability of marine systems. In 1988, Roger Newell, a Chesapeake Bay researcher, wrote that 130 years ago oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay were large enough to filter the entire water column of the bay in less than three to six days. Today, because of the decline in the bay’s shellfish population, a similar filtering would take about 325 days! Clearly, the poor water quality and deteriorated habitats in the Chesapeake are partly due to the removal of the shellfish link in the bay’s ecology. Recently, Michael Rice of the University of Rhode Island calculated that 3,750 rapidly growing oysters were capable of eliminating the nitrogen pollution reaching the estuary from one person in the watershed per year.

If we are to counter the negative impacts of the movement of this country’s population to the coast, we will need to ensure large, thriving populations of shellfish. This is just one more reason for us at the Shellfish Group to continue to produce and nurture more shellfish.

Best Wishes for the New Millennium
Richard C. Karney
Shellfish Biologist/Director.