Why the humble oyster is an eco champion

Native Oysters and culch piles in Essex

Native Oysters and culch piles in Essex - Credit: Archant

ZSL’s fundraising director on creating a sanctuary for a native wildlife species and “ocean superhero”

Native Oysters and culch piles in Essex

Native Oysters and culch piles in Essex - Credit: Archant

There's a superhero in our oceans that can filter chemicals from our waters, provide a home for marine creatures and even remove carbon from the environment.

But it's not a caped crusader it's the humble oyster.

Despite its remarkable abilities, this multi-tasking shellfish has suffered a 95 percent decline in population over the last 200 years - largely due to historic overfishing.

And the oysters' chance at recovery has been hindered by habitat loss, pollution and the introduction of diseases. Natural replenishment of their native grounds is so limited that human intervention is now their only hope.

The loss of any species is devastating, but these statistics are even more troubling when the important role of oysters and our oceans are understood.

Oysters are key to maintaining clean and healthy marine habitats, and worth far more than their popularity as an edible delicacy.

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Sometimes referred to as the vacuum cleaners of our waters, oysters filter particles such as nitrogen out of the water and recycle carbon into their shells.

A single oyster can filter up to 200 litres of seawater daily - for such a small animal this is truly remarkable.

As well as relying on oysters to maintain optimal water quality, many small marine species are able to use oyster reefs - formed when oysters cluster together on hard surfaces under the water - as shelter for juvenile fish, for spawning and as a protective habitat for animals such as edible crabs, and juvenile eels.

Sadly, due to the diminished populations of native oysters these reefs aren't thought to exist any longer in the UK.

Overfishing played a huge part in the dwindling numbers. People have been harvesting our native oysters for thousands of years. Oysters quickly became a popular food increasing demand which lead to catastrophic overfishing.

At ZSL we are working to restore oyster populations to their former glory.

With a grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund of over £225,000, ZSL and partners will begin a project this month to restore our native oyster - a small but essential species.

The donation will allow us to create a 'mother oyster sanctuary' in Essex to help kick-start a self-sustaining population of the native oyster.

Volunteers will lead a shell recycling scheme with local businesses (with the shells used to build the habitat for the new population) and volunteer divers will help monitor the oysters' progress.

We will be working with young people with special educational needs and disabilities to inspire them to love the natural world as much as we do - exploring through fun educational sessions to connect with the natural world, while also understanding how oysters became a part of the UK's cultural heritage and became embedded in common language through William Shakespeare's adage 'The world is your oyster'.

Together we want to create a world where wildlife thrives, and where we can continue to share stories of our wildlife heroes.

To find out how you can support us and donate to ZSL, please visit zsl.org.