Stopping superstorms — the world is our oyster
BridgeND | Wednesday, October 24, 2018
Hurricane Michael’s death toll is at least 39 and its economic damages are expected to surpass $30 billion. This most recent superstorm pales in comparison to previous storms, including Maria, Harvey, Irma and Sandy, which have directly and indirectly resulted in almost 4,000 deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars in damages. Politicians are discussing solutions as extreme as building physical sea walls, but what if the answer is much simpler, more economical and better for the environment? What if we could be protected by … oysters?
It sounds ludicrous, but oysters are one of the best adaptations to mitigating damages from superstorms. Oyster reefs used to grow naturally in coastal areas before water pollution made it impossible for them to survive. Yet a developed system of oyster reefs would break up tidal energy during superstorms, lessening their impact before they even reach the shore and preventing mass destruction. In fact, a University of Massachusetts study found that a model without oyster reefs “showed as much as a 200 percent increase in wave energy when compared to the oyster reef cases.” Oyster reefs could decrease the power of superstorms significantly, just like the proposed seawall, but would take little work to create and maintain. According to Smithsonian Magazine, these reefs could be created by dumping “old oyster shells or bits of rock or crushed concrete, on the seafloor and ‘seeding’ them with oyster larvae. The larvae attach to the shells or rocks and begin to grow.”
Sure, this ecosystem-based adaptation is better for the environment than placing tons of concrete in the ocean, but is it cost-effective? New York City has already pledged upwards of $1 billion toward its sea wall, and the proposed barrier could cost upward of $20 billion. In contrast, Paul Greenberg suggests in “American Catch” that complete restoration of an oyster reef barrier would likely only cost around a billion. Although even $1 billion seems high, it pales in comparison to the $50 billion to $100 billion in damages caused by each superstorm. Once established, oyster reefs will continue to grow and renew indefinitely, avoiding the additional costs of maintaining and expanding a human-built wall.
Oyster reefs also provide additional benefits, such as cleaning polluted water, restoring essential ecosystems and decreasing sea level rise. A single oyster can filter 50 gallons of water per day, making them vital to making polluted coastal waters swimmable and fishable once more. According to Greenberg, filtered water helps grow marsh grasses, stabilize shorelines and produce the most food energy per acre of all ecosystems. It is also possible that the oysters would be edible after about 50 years, but currently, the waters being considered for oyster reef restoration are too polluted to grow edible oysters. Since oysters make coastal waters more shallow, a fully grown oyster reef can also balance out the rising sea-levels, preventing flooding in key areas. Each of these improvements strengthens the economic case for oysters — in the Chesapeake Bay, the water quality improvements provided by oysters are estimated to be over $200 million, while increasing fish habitats is expected to increase annual revenue by up to $4 million.
The political feasibility of this adaptation, however, is less clear. Although the purpose of the oyster reefs would not initially be to produce food, politicians are generally unwilling to take a risk on polluted oysters. In 2010, the New government shut down an organization that had created 50 oyster gardens far off the coast, citing concerns about individuals getting sick from consuming poached oysters. There are viable solutions to avoid poaching such as placing large signs advising against harvesting the oysters, marking the oysters so they cannot be sold, placing the oysters far offshore and inaccessible or mandating that restaurants and stores test batches from unknown manufacturers to ensure they are safe to eat. Furthermore, the social, economic and political benefits of avoiding a catastrophic hurricane should far outweigh the political risks.
Hope remains for the oyster champions, as New Jersey’s ban on oyster reef research was overturned in 2016. Martin County, Florida, began its oyster reef restoration program even before the state’s recent superstorm, and Staten Island installed its first reef in August. Other coastal communities threatened by future superstorms would be wise to invest in this renewable, cost-effective form of storm resilience. When it comes to creative solutions to natural disasters, the world is our oyster.
Meredith Soward is a senior studying political science with minors in sustainability and the Hesburgh Program in Public Service. She has worked on international environmental issues in Uganda, Hungary, London and D.C., and hopes to pursue a career in sustainability after graduation. The viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of BridgeND as an organization.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.