It’s easy to get behind saving the whales. No end of people happily open their wallets to protect tigers and elephants, and who doesn’t want more pandas in the world? Even odd animals like the pangolin, kakapo, and solenodon have their defenders. Fine animals one and all, but a dedicated band of conservationists in New Hampshire has dedicated themselves to a far humbler creature: the oyster.
Yes, the oyster.
The waters of Great Bay once teemed with the scrumptious bivalves, but disease, pollution, and overfishing decimated their numbers by 90 percent over the past 40-odd years. Beyond providing a tasty meal, the filter-feeders play a vital role in maintaining the health of a marine ecosystem. Conservationists hope to restore their numbers by seeding artificial reefs with the creatures. “It’s not exactly Free Willie,” says photographer Joe Klementovich, “but it’s pretty cool.”
Researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Jackson Estuarine Laboratory teamed up with The Nature Conservancy in 2009 to begin building and populating artificial reefs. Once a year, they collect hundreds of tons of mollusk shells from restaurants and markets and add them to existing reefs. Then they stock the reefs with juvenile oysters. “We basically mimic what goes on in nature in the laboratory,” says Ray Grizzle who leads the program at UNH. So far, the campaign has restored 19.5 acres of reef and hopes to bump that to 25 acres by 2020.
Klementovich enjoys eating oysters now and again, so he was delighted to spend a cold, drizzly morning in September documenting their release. He photographed researchers and volunteers at the Jackson Estuarine Laboratory spending a couple of hours knocking a mucky mass of oysters loose from cages to take them out on the lake. “It’s a bit of a trick to get them out of these wire boxes,” he says. “Their shells have grown so much they’re busting out of the box.”
The team loaded the oysters onto a barge that they towed about a mile into the middle of the bay. They carefully navigated between the artificial reefs, shoveling shells as they went. The boat rocked. Shells flew. And Klementovich tried his best to document the whole thing while not falling into the water. It was unglamorous, backbreaking work, but everyone seemed positively psyched to be doing it. Oysters may not be cute like pandas or charismatic like elephants, but these dedicated volunteers are determined to save them, one shovelful at a time.