Humble Hero
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OystersCLEAN SWEEP: Ray Grizzle and Krystin Ward '06 wash mud from a batch of oysters. Photo by Lisa Nugent, UNH Photo Services.

The two Rays are out to change that. Konisky scans the horizon, pointing to a dark speck. It's a barge heading for the mouth of the Oyster River with 30 tons of clamshells—part of a reef-building experiment designed to transform one acre of muddy river bottom into a healthy oyster breeding ground. Konisky, who secured federal and state funds for the project (matched by the Nature Conservancy), has spent months orchestrating the details.

It began at Blount's Seafood in Rhode Island, where clamshells leftover from making chowder were loaded into 18-wheelers and, instead of heading for a landfill, were trucked to UNH's Kingman Farm. "Oyster shells are the ideal substrate," says Grizzle, "but there just aren't enough of them. Clams are a good alternative." For six months, the shells baked in the sun, wiping out any foreign organisms. Then they were loaded into giant feedbags and hauled to the barge.

Now deckhands latch a cable dangling from the barge's giant crane to a one-ton bag. Minutes later, shells cascade into the water below. In three days, 100 tons of shells, the foundation of a new reef, will be ready and waiting for oysters in search of a home.

Oysters aren't much to look at, especially early on. The larvae Grizzle uses to seed his reef experiments, from a hatchery in Maine, would be easy to mistake for a small pile of sand. In the spring, when the larvae arrive, research technician Krystin Ward '06 tosses one handful—roughly two million oysters—into each of two big gray tanks out behind UNH's Jackson Lab on the edge of Great Bay. Then she waits. In a few days, the larvae have attached to the old oyster shells at the bottom and grown into spat, which look like brown smudges about the size of a pinky fingernail. Next stop: the "nursery raft," anchored just offshore. Consisting of 160 cages lashed together in a sort of high-density oyster condo, the raft provides a relatively safe haven where the vulnerable spat spend the summer. Each cage holds about 200 shells, which serve as hosts to approximately 2,000 spat. During their weeks on the raft, Ward nurses the baby mollusks with regular cleanings, removing seaweed and other debris to improve water circulation through the cages.

Meanwhile, around the bay, about two dozen citizen-scientists are babysitting their own batches of spat-on-shell. Husband-and-wife team Jere Lundholm '53 and Harriet Forkey '54, '67G love telling their friends that they spend the summer as foster parents—to about 500 baby oysters. Every other week, they go to the end of their dock and haul up a small wire cage. Along with removing plants and barnacles, Lundholm and Forkey take measurements and record their findings, which they hand over to Ward when she collects the cages in the fall.

OystersSEX ON THE BEACH: Oysters aren't picky about their mates, which is a good thing since they're cemented to their location. Encouraged by warming water, males release sperm and females respond by clapping their shells together, setting free clouds containing millions of eggs. Photo by Getty Images.

Oysters raised by local residents like Lundholm and Forkey get so much attention that they grow extra big and healthy—which means they have a better chance of survival in the wild. Citizen-scientists also provide critical data, helping researchers compare growing conditions around the bay and determine where to locate the next reefs. In the past decade, Grizzle has worked on about a dozen restoration projects amounting to roughly 10 acres. Not all of them have been successful. Looking ahead to the next decade, the goal is to add two additional acres a year. The numbers may seem small, but the UNH-Nature Conservancy collaboration that has developed in recent years—combining scientific research, funding sources and logistics expertise—has generated new momentum. Successful "spawner sanctuaries," which are off-limits to harvesting, could be the ecological sparkplugs that someday ignite a wild oyster revival. The hope is that oyster farming, too—the raising of oysters for consumption—will become a viable enterprise in the bay. For now, though, the focus is on oysters as defenders of the ecosystem.

Success can't come soon enough. A recent study reported that globally, 85 percent of oyster reefs have been lost. Restoration efforts are underway around the world, and in nearly every state on both U.S. coasts. In New York harbor, for example, the New Hampshire team has been asked to help launch an effort to restore 5,000 acres of oysters by 2050.

In New Hampshire, even if all the towns around the bay updated their wastewater systems to meet new nutrient pollution standards, that would address only 40 percent of the problem. The other 60 percent is caused by widespread development-related pollution, which creeps steadily upward as the population density grows. "It's a very long-term effort to educate people and change behaviors," says Konisky. The oyster babysitting program helps, and so does a shell-recycling program, where oyster fishermen, restaurants, seafood markets and grocery stores collect and return shells to the bay by way of Grizzle's lab. "The fact is," says Konisky, "that for all our efforts to raise awareness and reduce pollution, we're never going to keep all the excess nutrients out of the bay. But every little bit helps."

OystersFOSTER PARENTS: Jere Lundholm '53 and Harriet Forkey '54, '67G tend 500 baby oysters off their Oyster River dock. Photo by Lisa Nugent, UNH Photo Services.

On a brisk day in early December, the two Rays are huddled in the stern of the R/V Meriel B, hoping for signs of Crassostrea virginica. The wind is cold and the current is strong, pushing the lobster boat-turned UNH research vessel hard against its anchor. Grizzle gives the command and a giant rusty claw plunges into the water. Seconds later, the contraption, which works like an oversized pair of salad tongs, is hauled back up, drenching Grizzle's rubber boots as he grabs the line and swings the loot up onto the deck—a goopy mess of mud and shells.

The researchers are looking for two things: oysters that got their start at UNH's Jackson Lab, and wild oysters that spawned on their own. Grizzle and Konisky sift through the shells. Lots of clamshells. No oysters. The next several hauls are mostly mud. Ward packs samples into plastic bags to study back at the lab. Everyone works quickly. Urgently. Clouds roll across the late-afternoon sky, gray and heavy. The tongs go down again. Finally, they hit gold—four oysters, each about the size of a quarter.

It would be hard to find a more unlikely candidate for the job of superhero. Small. Immobile. Daring? Hardly. But like any true hero, the oyster has some tenacious enemies. Along with several species of crabs, there's the oyster drill snail, sea urchin, starfish and octopus. And, then, of course, there are humans—countless oysters meet their demise on an appetizer plate. While they can't do much to defend themselves, oysters lucky enough to survive boast an impressive list of accomplishments. Erosion fighters, habitat protectors, champions of clean water—oysters do it all. Indeed, the fate of whole ecosystems, the survival of entire species, rest squarely on the unassuming shell of this humble mollusk. Sounds like a job for a superhero. ~

Also read "Farmers of the Sea"

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