Behold the tiny oyster.
No, not on the half-shell, with a squirt of lemon, but in its watery habitat, the Choptank River. Out there on a reef with many other oysters, the bivalve is awesome, a janitor that helps remove pollution with incredible efficiency.
A reef seeded with oysters by the state of Maryland - about 130 oysters per square meter - removed 20 times as much nitrogen pollution from stuff such as home lawn and farm fertilizer in one year as a nearby site that had not been seeded, according to a recently released study.
The upshot, said Lisa Kellogg, a researcher for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who led the four-year study, is that oyster reefs could potentially remove nearly half of nitrogen pollution from that one river on Maryland's Eastern Shore "if you took all the areas suitable for restoration and restored them." A wider restoration could help clean the Chesapeake Bay, where the Choptank and other major rivers drain.
It is a huge deal, Kellogg said. Man-made nitrogen pollution is part of a one-two punch that creates oxygen-depleted dead zones that have bedeviled the bay. At one time, when oyster reefs were so mountainous and plentiful that European explorers complained about navigating around them, the Chesapeake was crystal clear.
Oyster reefs are more than just the rocks of ages. They are the ultimate mixed-use development, inhabited by more than 24,500 marine animals that are not oysters - mussels, clams and sea squirts, to name a few - that also filter nitrogen.
Excessive harvesting of oysters, combined with massive farm and urban pollution, depleted the bivalves, denuded reefs and clouded the water by the 1980s. About that time, two diseases, Dermo and MSX, came out of nowhere to decimate the stock of oysters in Maryland and Virginia.
Oysters in those two states are experiencing a modest recovery because of the restoration and farming known as aquaculture.
In Virginia, 236,200 bushels of oysters were harvested two years ago, up from 79,600 bushels in 2005. Maryland took in 121,000 bushels in 2011, nearly 95,000 more than 2005.
Kellogg and her fellow researchers wanted to show that oyster reefs could greatly improve water quality and are worth the millions of dollars being invested in their restoration.
They also hoped to build on previous studies that had depended on simulations to estimate nitrogen removal at oyster reefs. Their study, started in 2009, used actual measurements of nitrogen levels.
"There was a huge amount of interest in nitrogen removal," said Jeff Cornwell, a researcher at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science who contributed to the study.
The researchers measured the amount of nitrogen gas production in water channels on a reef near the Emerson C. Harrington Bridge on the Choptank at Cambridge, Md. They did the same at a site where restoration had not occurred.
The study was funded by NRG Energy.
"The rates we've seen in the Choptank for removal is the highest we've seen anywhere," Cornwell said. "The . . . results are so promising. As we develop data sets we can calculate what oysters did when they were a larger population."
Bivalves scarf up phytoplankton that consume nitrogen. Phytoplankton produce algae blooms that die, turn into a sticky black goo and suck oxygen - needed by pretty much every inhabitant of bay tributaries - from the water. Dead zones deplete the bay of life and rob predators such as eagles and osprey of food.
When oysters and other creatures eat phytoplankton, they poop it into dark areas of the reef where microorganisms feed. Those organisms convert the nitrogen to nitrogen gas that wafts into the atmosphere, Kellogg said.
"The good news about oysters is if we do it right and give them a chance . . . they produce huge numbers of eggs each year," she said. "It's a prolific species that can provide this habitat again, to the extent that we allow it."
That message hasn't fallen on deaf ears. This month, Virginia plans to embark on its largest state-funded oyster replenishment in history, focusing on sites in the James, York, and Rappahannock rivers and in the Chesapeake in Pocomoke and Tangier sounds, according to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
The state has already created huge sanctuaries in public waters where watermen are restricted to harvesting oysters on a rotating basis about every two years. In March, the Virginia Marine Police hit 10 people with 115 charges related to oyster violations.
Maryland has been even more aggressive about restoring oyster habitat, pouring $50 million into oyster recovery over the past 16 years. Oyster harvesting is forbidden by the state on a quarter of the bars where they grow; violations can draw fines of up to $25,000 and as many as 15 years in prison.
For years, Maryland scientists at the Horn Point Oyster Hatchery in Cambridge have put oysters in the mood to mate, bathing them in warm water tanks. When the vibe is right, the males spew sperm, the females spread eggs and, soon, larvae develop.
The larvae live on a steady diet of algae until they develop into spat - like teenagers ready to move on to shells of their own. Millions are taken by boat onto the Choptank and Harris Creek and dropped onto reefs.
Cornwell and Kellogg hope their work will encourage states to fulfill a mission to create 98 acres of reef a year - even though the diseases that kill the bivalves continue to be a threat.
"You have to leave them out, have them develop a resistance and have a self-sustaining population," he said. "There has to be a jump-start to have the oysters come back in a more natural way."
Cornwell paused for a few seconds, thinking about the risk. "If they're all dead soon, you have to evaluate the value," he said.
Behold the tiny oyster.
- Community News Network
New York to offer free lunch to all middle-school students
New York's $75 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that began last week includes the first step toward offering free lunch for all 1.1 million students, expanding a program now reserved only for the city's poorest children.
Are America's biggest alcohol brands targeting the country's underage youth?
Underage drinkers - those between the ages of 18 and 20, most specifically - are more heavily exposed to printed alcohol advertisements than any other age group, according to a new study. And it's America's biggest booze companies that could be to blame.
Survey shows colleges flouting sexual assault rules
More than 40 percent of 440 colleges and universities surveyed by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., haven't investigated a sexual assault in the past five years, according to a report released Wednesday.
VIDEO: Pilot buys pizzas for storm-delayed travelers
A Frontier Airlines pilot went above and beyond the call of duty when a recent flight from Washington, D.C. to Denver was diverted to Cheyenne, Wyoming due to bad weather.
This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps
I climbed the ladder quickly, free to work any hours in any location for any pay. I moved from market to market, always achieving a better title, a better salary. Succeeding.
There's less good music now — here's why
Taylor Swift, the seven-time Grammy winner, is known for her articulate lyrics, so there was nothing surprising about her writing a long column for The Wall Street Journal about the future of the music industry. Yet there's reason to doubt the optimism of what she had to say.
Why North Korean cheerleaders may soon descend on the South
When you think of North Korea, "cheerleaders" may not be the first thing that springs to mind. The Hermit Kingdom is perhaps better known for less savory things like gulag-like labor camps and leadership purges.
Auto recalls break single-year US record with six months to go
With six months left in 2014, automakers have already recalled more vehicles in the United States than in any other year on record.
VIDEO: Foiled beach gear theft goes viral
Video capturing a bizarre confrontation with two women allegedly attempting to steal beach gear on a Florida beach has gone viral.
VIDEO: Sleeping fan suing Yankees, ESPN for $10M
A fan caught on camera sleeping during a recent game at Yankee Stadium has filed suit against the Yankees and ESPN, claiming he suffered emotional distress when two announcers mocked him on the air.
Nation's first soda tax could come to Berkeley
The Berkeley City Council unanimously decided last week to put the 1-cent-per-ounce tax on the ballot this November. Approving the tax would mean a major defeat for the soda industry, which has spent millions to crush the effort nationwide.
12 states now have plans for a minimum wage of $9 or more
Rhode Island last week joined 11 other states that plan to raise their minimum wage to at least $9 over the next several years.
Can plants hear? Study finds that vibrations prompt some to boost their defenses
They have no specialized structure to perceive sound as we do, but a new study has found that plants can discern the sound of predators through tiny vibrations of their leaves - and beef up their defenses in response.
Bombing suspect's classmate hid evidence to shield him, jury told
A college classmate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev conspired with other young men to protect their friend, "who they knew was being investigated for the Boston Marathon bombings," a prosecutor told federal court jurors.
Backlash has begun against gluten-free dieters
The swelling ranks of Americans adopting gluten-free diets have given rise to another hot trend: people calling the whole thing a bunch of baloney.
VIDEO: A boom in firework sales
This year could be quite the boom for fireworks sales across the U.S. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, or the APA, sales are already off to a good start.
Happy birthday, America. Now legalize fireworks.
Through the smoke of Roman candles and bottle rockets, the absurdity of Americans' obsession with do-it-yourself explosives is nonetheless clear: One day each year, we gather with neighbors, friends and loved ones to blow stuff up in our backyards. Go, U.S.A.!
Cattle at record signals higher beef costs for July 4th grillers
Cattle futures extended a rally to a record as Americans are gearing up to pay the most ever for beef served at barbecues over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
Avoidable injuries are killing too many young Americans
Not so cheerful news before your holiday weekend: Some sobering new government numbers show just how many young people die from injuries that could have been avoided.
Higher airfare, crowded planes likely to linger after summer
Air travelers are paying more to fly in the U.S. this summer on crowded planes as carriers keep capacity tight, conditions passengers will have to get used to beyond the vacation period.
Americans falling out of love with shopping malls
Abandoned malls are hot: The Dead Malls Enthusiasts Facebook group boasts almost 14,000 members; a Google search of "dead malls" produces 5.7 million results; and the desolate interiors of these unused retailing meccas keep making cameos in thrillers and horror films.
More Americans are stuck in part-time work
New government data slated for release Thursday is expected to show the economy added more than 200,000 jobs for the fifth straight month - the longest streak since the late 1990s.
Best president? Worst president? Don't read too much into those polls
The questions about who are the best and worst post-WWII presidents are useless. What they mainly show is that Republicans are far more unified around a single story than are Democrats.
Two boys dead, infant critically injured in mobile home fire
Two young children died and their infant sister was in critical condition after fire engulfed their mobile home in a small town in upstate New York Monday night.
A messaging app that doesn't use words at all
About 10,000 people have signed up for usernames for a chat app that isn't even out yet: Emoj.li. It's an instant messenger app that uses no words at all — not even "Yo" or "Hodor!" Instead, it employs only emoji icons.
What states can do on their own about immigration
It's official: Congress won't take up immigration reform this year. This week, President Barack Obama said he'll use executive actions to change policies unilaterally.
VIDEO: Manhole cover 'explodes' in Indiana
Recent heavy rains in Terre Haute, Indiana flooded the city’s storm sewers, which built up enough pressure to blow a manhole cover off at Fairbanks Park.
Tropical Storm Arthur off Florida may grow into hurricane
Tropical Storm Arthur formed off the Florida coast and is forecast to grow into a hurricane that will threaten North Carolina's Outer Banks during the Fourth of July holiday.
Woman's African safari photos draw ire on Facebook
A Texas woman’s photos from an African hunting safari posted on Facebook have provoked a range of responses — including many laced with hate and outright death threats.
A statistical blind spot that makes the US crime rate seem lower than it is
Imagine an American city with 2.2 million people, making it the fourth largest in the nation. Now imagine that city is a place where residents suffer routine violence and cruelty at rates unlike anywhere else in the country, where they are raped and beaten with alarming frequency by their neighbors and even the city officials who are paid to keep them safe. Now imagine that we, as a nation, didn't consider the vast majority of that violence to be criminal or even worth recording. That is, in effect, the state of the U.S. correctional system today.
- More Community News Network Headlines
- New York to offer free lunch to all middle-school students