Cleaning Marine Ecosystems at the Dinner Table
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What if you could help restore the health of America’s coastal bays and estuaries at the dinner table? Consider that many of the concerns about non-point source pollution focus on fertilizers and other nutrients washed off lawns, gardens and farms. Nutrient-rich runoff flows into rivers and streams and into coastal waters where algae blooms deplete water of oxygen, creating “dead-zones” where fish can’t survive. (See Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone here.)
Across Puget Sound and Hood Canal in Washington state, population has risen over recent decades and more people are watering and fertilizing their lawns. Rains wash some of this fertilizer into Puget Sound. Plus, many older homes have septic tanks now leaking into groundwater and the Sound.
But if fertilizer is so key to lush, green lawns and farming, why would it be so harmful in rivers, streams, and coastal estuaries? Leakage from septic tanks seems harmful for nearby waters. But fish don’t look for bathrooms. How are natural waste sources and natural runoffs handled in marine ecosystems?
Welcome to the world of shellfish. Shellfish are called Filter Feeders
because they feed by drawing water through their gills and filtering out tiny plants and animals called plankton. A large oyster can filter up to seven gallons of plankton-bearing water an hour; a clam, half that amount….
In the ecosystem, bivalve shellfish filter seawater and in the process help regulate vital flows of nutrients and energy in the overall coastal system. (source in link above)
More on “RECENT DEVELOPMENTS IN SHELLFISH CULTURE ON THE U.S. PACIFIC COAST” in this undated article on NOAA website.
Sometimes it takes muscle to solve serious environmental problems. And sometimes it just takes mussels. Consider this experimental project to restore Quartermaster harbor on Vashon Island in Puget Sound:
Inner Quartermaster has layers and layers of silt and few fish, due to its notoriously low levels of dissolved oxygen.
But what that flat, muddy sea floor will provide is a good spot to sink an anchor for several months, which in turn will open the door to an innovative experiment in how to heal a place like Quartermaster — an estuary suffering from a massive overload of nutrients.
The two divers — both employed by the nonprofit Puget Sound Restoration Fund — are part of an effort to see if native mussels can be recruited to help restore Vashon’s ailing inland sea.
The mussels will cling to ropes hanging from the bottom of a specially designed raft anchored to the sea floor, Allen explained, where they’ll do what mussels always do — take in nutrients and convert them into protein, filtering out particulates and cleaning the water in the process. (Source.)
Here is link to Puget Sound Restoration Fund’s Facebook page. And here are pictures from their mussel rafts for Quartermaster harbor.
In addition to nonprofit organizations looking for ways to restore the health of marine ecosystems, there are for-profit firms interested. Mussels are filter feeders and grow plump and tasty “doing what they always do — take in nutrients and convert them into protein, filtering out particulates and cleaning the water in the process.”
A nonprofit could offer these tasty mussels to donors, but then donors would have to report the value of mussel meals on their income tax return. It is bad form and illegal for nonprofits to use donations to provide direct benefits to donors. (That’s why when you pay to attend a nonprofit’s annual dinner, you are told how much you can deduct from your ticket price–you can’t deduct the cost of the dinner).
So a nonprofit could perhaps offer mussels to donors and others who don’t like mussels. Then consuming them would be a sort of volunteer effort, like working on beach clean-up projects. And for many people, especially from the midwest and farm country and more comfortable with beef and chicken, eating mussels is really hard. Forcing young people to eat mussels might very well build character. And they would have the sense of making a personal sacrifice to help make America’s coastal waters cleaner.
For others, eating mussels is even more of a challenge. Sometimes a pleasant mussel dinner quickly turns to an adventure as diners discover they can’t move, thanks to Gonyaulacoid dinoflagellates that have filtered into mussels or other shellfish. It’s best I think to watch and wait for other diners consume their mussels before ordering yours. But if you consume the wrong mussels, here is what to expect:
Five to 30 minutes from consumption, there is slight perioral tingling progressing to numbness which spreads to face and neck [in] moderate cases. In severe cases, these symptoms spread to the extremities with incoordination and respiratory difficulty. There are medullary disturbances in severe cases evidenced by difficulty swallowing, sense of throat constriction, speech incoherence or complete loss of speech, as well as brain stem dysfunction. Within 2-12 hours, in very severe cases, there is complete paralysis and death from respiratory failure in absence of ventilatory support. After 12 hours, regardless of severity, victims start to recover gradually and are without any residual symptoms within a few days (Bower et al, 1981, ILO 1984, Halstead 1988). (Source.)
Still, mussels are tasty enough, and testing for PSP is apparently adequate, that mussels are eagerly consumed when available (especially with improved 911 service to local hospitals with ventilators).
The Puget Sound Restoration Fund encourages people with waterfront acreage to try shellfish gardening:
Beginning in 2006 nine adventurous shoreline dwellers from Bainbridge Island teamed up with Puget Sound Restoration Fund to begin gardening on their tidelands. The beaches varied greatly in substrate type from the calm, muddy inlets of Port Madison Bay to the exposed and gravelly beaches near Lynwood Center. Today over 120 families have planted shellfish gardens around the island and continue to send us reports of their “absolutely fabulous clams” and “fantastic oysters.”
A challenge in all these efforts, from various government and nonprofit projects to homeowners encouraged to develop a “shellfish garden,” is the often complicated dance to avoid making money providing tasty shellfish to restaurants and people willing to pay.
A specter is haunting ecosystem restoration — the spectre of capitalism. [Contra Marx: A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.]
What if it private business and coastal landowners were allowed to develop robust shellfish farms onshore and offshore? Federal policy could be reformed to open commercial shellfish operations, at least removing EPA restrictions that complicate state-level policies. A more radical case might call for federal protection of economic liberties from state regulations limiting private coastal landowner’s commercial shellfish farms. (Some Wash. State shellfish regulations here.)
Let a billion shellfish filter!
For China, the Economist says, “Let a million flowers bloom.” The article’s subtitle:
China is often held up as an object lesson in state-directed capitalism. Yet its economic dynamism owes much to those outside the government’s embrace
State ownership of America’s rivers, steams, and coastal areas restricts enterprise that can create value and jobs through commercial and recreational fishing and shellfish harvesting. And commercial growing and harvesting of shellfish filter feeders can dramatically improve water quality. Successfully managing such commercial operations is complex, like most businesses, and suffers from seemingly arbitrary regulations and environmental lawsuits.
Entrepreneurs and enterprises provide that dynamism across the American economy. Once thriving oysters, mussels, and other shellfish beds have been ruined by development, fresh water diversion, and nutrient runoff. Dozens, maybe hundreds, or perhaps thousand of shellfish farmers, small and large, are ready to enter the marketplace with enterprises that put millions and maybe billions of shellfish to work filtering America’s nutrient-rich coastal waters.
Here is the webpage of Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington state.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission is trying something new to expand the ecologically beneficial farming of oysters and clams on state-owned water bottoms.
In January, the Commission is expected to approve the creation of 15 new Aquaculture Opportunity Zones.
These zones will set aside more than 1,000 acres of prime state-owned water bottoms for the farming of shellfish in cages. The zones appear to be perfect for shellfish farming, also known as aquaculture.
More on Virginia “Shellfish Aquaculture, Farming and Gardening” here.