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SIDE DISH

oyster shellCAN OYSTERS COME BACK
TO THE BAY?

BY SARAH HENRY
ILLUSTRATIONS BY SARAH HODGSON
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDREW WHITMORE

Christopher Lim is on a mission to educate eaters about the connection between the health of the planet and what’s on our plate. For him, it’s all about oysters, those sea-kissed, succulent shellfish whose sustainability standing makes them a popular oyster shellpick among local chefs and eco-conscious consumers. Fans of the briny bivalve can enjoy dollar-a-pop oysters all day Mondays at Luka’s Taproom in Oakland and every day at Café Rouge in Berkeley, where Fanny Bays on the half shell are $1.25 each. And those willing to fork over five bucks rave about the Yonsei oyster appetizer, which is served with sea urchin, salmon roe, and citrus-soy at Oakland’s Hopscotch.

“I think the $1 oyster happy hour phenomenon introduced a lot of people to oysters who might not have tried them before,” says Lim, explaining the current craze for this shellfish. “And now we have oyster connoisseurs discussing the meroir—that’s like terroir but for the sea—of oysters and how location, salinity, and water temperature impacts taste and texture.”

picutre of Lim and Reef Balls

Standing in Front of a couple of dozen finished Reef Balls’ Christopher Lim discussed how the Living Shoreline program engages local community volunteers in building a more healthy ecosystem.

Lim, a self-described science nerd and UC Berkeley marine biology graduate, appreciates all this oyster love and not just because he enjoys slurping from the half shell as much as the next bivalve fan. His day job revolves around restoring the lost habitat of the San Francisco Bay’s native oysters through the Living Shoreline Initiative of the Richmond-based Watershed Project.

Considered a keystone species, oysters are important members of  a healthy San Francisco Bay ecosystem. Historically, the small but mighty mollusks known as Olympia oysters thrived in the bay’s shallow waters and played a role in coastal Native American diets before getting all but wiped out during the Gold Rush, due to overharvesting and the scourge of silt runoff from hydraulic mining. Since then, these buttery bivalves with their sought-after cucumber finish and slightly coppery taste have been hard to find in local waters.

But with the Watershed Project’s help, they could well make a comeback. Lim’s plan brings together staffers, interns, and volunteers to construct 100 cement, sand, and oyster shell “Reef Balls” destined for the intertidal waters off Point Pinole, an area showing significant signs of Olympia oyster spawning. The hope is that young Olympians will latch onto these artificial reefs and develop into adults.

Lim is quick to point out that bay-dwelling oysters may never be suitable for eating, since the waters carry a heavy load of toxins and other pollutants, which can bioaccumulate in animal fat. While oysters aren’t fatty creatures, the jury remains out on whether these shellfish will ever be safe to slurp.

picture Kyle Hamilton

Kyle Hamilton pouring BayCrete – a mixture of oyster shell and sand dredged from the bay combined with cement – into Reef Ball molds.

Edible or not, the return of the Olympian could help restore this fragile habitat, since the presence of oysters in an ecosystem can have a profound impact on its health. The manmade Reef Balls, like real reefs, could become habitat for worms, crabs and fish, which in turn feed larger fish, such as salmon. All good news for the sea critters who once called the bay a healthy home.

Oysters may be the darling of local diners, but they’ve been hit hard by a myriad of forces of late. In Tomales Bay in West Marin, Pickleweed Point Community Oyster Farm is looking for a new location—according to Lim who is active in the project—due to water-quality concerns related to upstream dairy farms. Drakes Oyster Company is battling its lease loss in the courts, and Hog Island Oyster Company, celebrating 30 years, is working with researchers to combat the impact of ocean acidification on baby oyster hatcheries by growing and monitoring their own oyster “seeds” or young oysters.

picture Nahom Fasil Melese

Nahom Fasil Melese shares in the work of pouring BayCrete into Reef Ball molds.

Lim looks forward to the day when he can bring the curious out to Point Pinole to showcase a thriving Olympia oyster population. “Oysters aren’t charismatic creatures—they’re not cute or cuddly—but people do make the connection between oyster health and the health of the bay,” he says. “Sometimes it can be difficult doing environmental work to make that link, like when you’re weeding noninvasive species. But oysters seem to resonate with people, and I think it’s the food connection.”

A part-time oyster farmer in his off-work hours, Lim conducts field trips for local school students including those from Richmond, some of whom have never been to the shoreline, let alone shucked or slurped an oyster. As part of his Wild! Oysters program, youths get to count oyster spat or baby bivalves, monitor water quality, and go on field trips to Tomales Bay for oyster tastings. “Since some of these teens have never tasted an oyster, they may be cautious, but there’s not a better time or place to try one than in Tomales Bay,” Lim says. “Environmental outreach combined with eating, that’s where we can make the most impact in education about the interconnections of our Shorelineecosystems and the importance of being environmental stewards and protecting marine habitat.”

To learn more or volunteer,
contact the Watershed Project:
thewatershedproject.org.

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