Published on Monday April 23, 2012 in the Toronto Star Mary Ormsby, Feature Writer
A shimmering mound of Atlantic oysters chills atop shaved ice, shucked and inviting, lining a platter at a downtown Toronto gathering.
Succulent. Briney. Plentiful.
It’s been that way with oysters — particularly the plentiful part — for more than 100 years in Toronto.
Citizens, the grand and the humble, have slurped the slippery mollusc in public oyster houses or stirred the ocean creatures into bubbling stew pots for family meals. An 1894 ad in Toronto’sEvening Star shows oysters were cents to buy; a cheap, nutritious, democratic food pulled from wild maritime coastal reefs and shipped west to Toronto.
But no more.
Today’s pricey oyster menus are filled almost exclusively with meat farmed through aquaculture businesses.
Wild oysters — which clean our water and protect species in our food chain — have been eaten, poisoned and suffocated to virtual extinction. In Canada, that demise began around confederation.
Researchers have found 85 per cent of the world’s wild oyster reefs have died, a human-engineered destruction detailed in an award-winning documentary, Shellshocked, by American filmmaker Emily Driscoll. The film made its Canadian premiere April 16 in Toronto at Rodney’s Oyster House on King Street West.
“Wild oyster reefs are functionally extinct and that means they no longer have a significant role in their ecosystem,” says Driscoll, who was raised in New York City, once considered the world’s economic and gastronomic oyster capital.
Only a handful of wild oysters remain in New York Harbour, recently the site of aggressive restoration projects.
“In my film, wild oysters are called ecosystem engineers. So for something that vital in the ecosystem to no longer have are role. . . is a big fall.”
Oysters purify water (an adult can filter up to 190 litres daily), neutralize killer nitrogen and provide a three-dimensional habitat for hundreds of fish and plants (oysters usually glue themselves to other shells shortly after fertilization — eggs and sperm are sprayed into open water, the soft, floating larva latches to a hard surface permanently where, it too, will grow a rock-like shell). Those wild reefs, so thick and large early French explorers had trouble navigating Canadian waters, also acted as erosion protection of shorelines.
Inka Milewski is the science adviser to the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and a wild oyster reef expert. She estimates only 10 per cent of the historic natural reef remains in all of Atlantic Canada.
The environmentalist recalls trying to pinpoint a “last remnant of reef” to study a decade ago. She found it in the Northumberland Strait, at Bouctouche Bay, but what was left to explore “was so sad.”
“Wild oyster reefs were once these three-dimensional emerging structures out of the sea bottom that were solid oyster clusters,” Milewski says.
In the 2002 report she co-authored, “Oysters in New Brunswick: More than a harvestable resource,” the scientist noted that French explorer Nicolas Denys wrote in 1672 of the region’s oyster reefs growing almost to the water’s surface.
“So imagine (an oyster structure) a height of six or seven or eight feet. When I go, I find something that is barely a foot off the sea bottom. Some of (the oysters) are covered in a green slime, which is a symptom of eutrophication — nutrient pollution from sewage systems, runoff and fish plants.”
Government regulations to contain overfishing were enacted in 1867 but the legislation wasn’t heeded and reefs were being stripped bare faster than the oysters could reproduce. Diseases struck over ensuing decades, further depleting the fragile natural beds by the 1950s, including those holding the region’s famous Malpeque oysters.
Aquaculture has put oysters back on tables in such robust quantities that it’s easy to see why people don’t understand the ocean environment is stressed, with little natural reef left, Driscoll says.
“The oysters people have on their plate, 95 per cent of the time it’s a farmed oyster. So people would have no way of knowing (of the vanishing reefs) because in their day-to-day experience, oysters seem plentiful,” the filmmaker says.
Milewski fears the economic upside of oyster farming has shifted governmental and scientific focus to aquaculture and away from examining the restoration, recovery and ecological importance of natural oyster reefs.
Milewski says it’s important to understand that what happens under water, such as the extinction of keystone species, has a direct impact on the human food chain.
“I don’t want to sound alarmist but really, it is alarming what is happening to our oceans.”
Driscoll says her film, ultimately, is about hope — of people being caring and innovative in attempts to restore wild reefs as habitats and water purifiers.