Endangered Aphrodisiac

A favorite Valentine’s Day delicacy is functionally extinct in some places. According to a recent study in the science journal BioScience, scientists from the U.S., China, Italy, Tasmania, and Uruguay estimate that 85% of Earth's oyster reefs have been lost, most likely due to overharvesting, habitat degradation, and disease. The main countries where oysters are harvested are China, Korea, Japan, the United States, and France. Scientists studied 144 oyster reefs around the world. "The most striking thing about our analysis is that it shows that oyster reefs are the most threatened of all shallow-water, structured habitats—more so than coral reefs, mangroves, or wetlands," says professor Mark Luckenbach of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

It’s not all bad news. There are ways to improve the condition of oyster reefs above functionally extinct levels – where the current population is at least 99% less than historical levels taken between 20 and 130 years ago. The scientists participating in the study note that strong marine management policies including sanctuary reefs are effective in protecting the oyster reefs. For example, governments in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia have taken steps to protect the Chesapeake Bay, with the cooperation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "It is critical that we apply our best science toward native oyster restoration and habitat protection, as well as toward development of sustainable aquaculture,” Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator said during a 2010 press conference. “Ecosystem-based approaches to management will enable progress toward a healthy, sustainable Chesapeake ecosystem that will include oysters for generations to come.” The conservation effort includes managing around disease and managing oyster harvests. The San Francisco Bay is governed by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission in an effort to keep the area safe for the environment, while flourishing economically.

Scientists who completed the study also recommend dredging that does not damage remaining reefs, and to look at the value of the oyster reefs on the ecosystem, and not just oysters as profit. "We have to recognize oysters for the reef habitat they provide," says Luckenbach. "We need to work with regulators and resource managers to ensure that oyster conservation and restoration efforts are designed not just to sustain a fishery, but to provide a vibrant reef and the ecosystem services it offers." The Monterey Bay Aquarium recommends farmed oysters as a way to protect the oyster reefs.

Oysters are low in calories and high in protein and in nutrients like zinc, niacin (vitamin B3), riboflavin (vitamin B2), thiamin (vitamin B1) as well as vitamins C and D. They are often eaten raw, but can also be eaten cooked as well. Oysters have long held a reputation of being an aphrodisiac. Scientists are still on the fence on whether or not this is true. Early research has indicated that oysters contain D-aspartic acid and NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) that release estrogen and testosterone. However, more research needs to be done before scientists can put this rumor to bed.

Photo by Glen MacLarty