The eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) lives in estuaries along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and has served as an important food supply for centuries. Oysters are related to other kinds of bivalve mollusks such as clams and mussels. These kinds of animals collect and eat very small food particles out of the water, which helps clean the water! Oyster larvae like to land on other oysters and grow on top of each other. This is how oyster reefs form and these important reefs can grow many feet high and many miles wide. All kinds of estuarine animals, such as blue crabs and striped bass, use these reefs as hiding spots, feeding grounds, or even as their own homes. Just like coral reefs in tropical waters, oyster reefs support all kinds of life in the estuary. Additionally, healthy oyster reefs support a strong local economy through recreational and commercial activities!
Locally in the Delaware Estuary, oysters were very abundant until the 1950s when the oyster disease MSX initially killed over 95% of the entire population. A second oyster disease, Dermo, appeared in the 1990s and both diseases continue to affect populations. Today’s oyster populations are a fraction of what they once were but oysters are resilient and continue to grow! Though most of the oyster reefs happen to sit on the New Jersey “side” of the bay, reefs exist throughout and oysters settle wherever they can find habitat. Today’s commercial harvests are considered sustainable, but only because local researchers and officials work together and use scientific advice to make informed decisions.
For more information on the Delaware Bay Oyster Restoration Project, please read our brochure and 2008 update (PDF files). You can also contact Dr. David Bushek of Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory at (856) 785-0074, extension 4327. For more insight into the history of Delaware Bay oysters, please read PDE’s spring 2005 issue of Estuary News, as well as our oyster fact sheet (PDF files).