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25 February 2021

Consider the Oyster: why economics still has so much to learn from the natural world

From Charles Dickens to the Dasgupta report, the story of the oyster holds gritty hope for conservation.

By India Bourke

Before it was the global centre of finance or home to the Statue of Liberty, New York was the oyster capital of the world. Blue Point oysters, Manhattan oysters, Rockaways, Cape Cods and oysters from Flushing Bay – all these varieties and more once flourished in the Hudson’s brackish waters. In the 19th century, around a million of them were eaten every day in the city, and millions more were exported in newly ice-packed ships. Discarded shells intermingled on vast middens of calcified waste; burnt, they provided lime for plaster and paint.

Raw, fried, pickled, stewed, packed in patties and spread on toast; some were eaten with champagne, some straight from the boats. The millionaire “Diamond Jim” Brady would consume two or three dozen before midday, while in Canal Street’s red curtained oyster cellars, six cents would buy a bottomless lunch. When Charles Dickens travelled to New York in 1842, oysters opened a 12-course feast thrown in his honour. 

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A symbol of plenitude, it must have been with a slight sense of irony, therefore, that the following year the author described A Christmas Carol’s protagonist as “solitary as an oyster”. Yes, Ebenezer Scrooge may have shut himself away inside a brittle shell. But as the recluse soon learns – and the oyster’s image also foreshadows – individuals thrive as part of a community, and generosity provides its own sustenance for rich and poor alike.

Today, when it comes to appreciating the true value of nature itself, the world is sadly still grappling with the same lesson: how not to fixate so much on making money that you lose sight of the communal whole. Or, alternatively, not to focus so much on harvesting an individual oyster that you lose sight of the health of the reef. 

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A new UK government report on the economics of biodiversity, the Dasgupta review, puts this warning in stark terms. The natural world has now been so exploited and degraded that it poses a serious threat to humanity, the report argues. If we don’t begin to restore it, then we can’t hope to save ourselves.

Considering nature as a capital asset in need of investment and maintenance is not a new idea.

In fact many have previously recoiled from defining nature in financial terms, fearing it will perpetuate the mindsets that have caused its destruction. Guardian columnist George Monbiot has lamented Dasgupta’s “totalitarian capitalism” which, he said, means “everything must now be commodified”.

[see also: The race to put a price on the world’s oceans]

But while there are potential pitfalls in this approach, the review also gives cause for hope: it recognises nature’s limits and argues for extending protected areas to at least 30 per cent by 2030, effectively taking those resources out of market circulation.

Either way, the report is helping signal a critical juncture in economics’ relationship to the planet – and the story of the oyster can help shed light on how we arrived at it. 


Nearly 200 years on from Dickens’s visit, New York’s oysters now represent excess of a different kind.

In 1918 the Hudson River, its waters thick with millions of tons of untreated sewage, closed its last commercial oyster bed. Dredging and over-harvesting had entirely cleared the natural oyster reefs that once forced Henry Hudson to curve his course into the bay. The coast was left dangerously exposed to storm surge and the home of US capitalism deprived of the life source upon which its foundations were built.

Nor is New York’s history an isolated case. Around the world, over-harvesting, land reclamation, agricultural run-off and the introduction of non-native species have all made wild oyster reefs one of the most endangered marine habitats on Earth. According to a 2009 assessment of global stocks, 85 per cent of these oyster reefs have been lost over the last two centuries.

Meanwhile, as marine stocks plummet, farmed fish and shellfish industries have filled their place. Projected to be worth a total $245bn within the next six years, aquaculture is a beacon of the new Blue Economy – and farmed oysters are the tip of the world’s ever-accelerating demand.

“Rolls-Royce” varieties are flown around the globe, from Gillardeau all the way to Guangzhou, where they are touted on China’s social media platform Weibo, purchased via WeChat and consumed in large quantities, such as at the blogger Mi Zijun’s 27kg seafood feast.

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Mass aquaculture has brought with it a range of environmental plagues. Farmed oysters may rank highly on the Good Fish Guide, largely thanks to the fact they can be raised without chemicals or feed. But they can still pose threats: from the depletion of remaining wild stock by egg collectors to the dredging of seeds and competition with other vital species. An excess of oyster feces even risks sucking oxygen from their surroundings.

Seamus Heaney’s description of the “alive and violated” species in his 1970s poem Oysters has perhaps never seemed so apt.


Yet the oyster’s strange grip on our imaginations doesn’t only result in Heaney’s “glut of privilege”. Or at least it shouldn’t. For, much like Dasgupta’s review, these primordial beings also contain a gritty speck of optimism.

When an oyster draws in water, its gills function like microscopic eyelashes, filtering out the suspended pollutants and releasing only clean water back into the sea – up to 50 gallons a day for full-grown adults. Alive, they can help tackle the nitrogen washed off farmland by turning it into gas. Dead, their shells provide nesting sites for other creatures, forming the temperate equivalent of tropical coral reefs.

A growing number of projects have thus been set up to restore this keystone species in the wild. From Australia to the US East Coast, the Nature Conservancy is partnering with charities and universities to establish human-made oyster reefs, including buying up unwanted stock from growers hit by Covid-19.

Meanwhile Glenmorangie whisky in Scotland has joined forces with Heriot-Watt University and the Marine Conservation Society to restore native oyster reefs to the Dornoch Firth, hoping, through this, to offset organic waste from its distillery. In New York’s Hudson Bay, the Billion Oyster Project is collecting oyster shells from restaurants to recreate reefs for new oysters to thrive.


In perhaps the best interpretation of what the Blue Economy could be, these efforts intend to reap dividends primarily in terms of biodiversity rather than profit. But they also require financing to work. 

In America’s Chesapeake Bay, nitrogen removal credits might one day be pegged to oyster harvests, which could then be purchased by industry to offset pollution. The Nature Conservancy has even suggested introducing “Blue Bonds for Conservation”, which could see island and coastal nations refinance their national debt to secure funding specifically for conservation.

Meanwhile, on the commerical side, many believe that governments should drive shellfish aquaculture towards environmentally sustainable ends. For Marc-Philip Buckhout at Seas At Risk, that could involve aquaponics, which creates a cooperation between fish and plant life, and promoting farms which combine fish and shellfish, using the waste from one species to provide food for the other. The European Commission has also revised its strategic guidelines for the aquaculture industry to promote environmental services as well as to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.

But while restorative shellfish aquaculture is possible, it also has an uphill battle to climb. For Anna Weinstein, the director of marine conservation at the Audubon Society, talk of such farming for profit can be little more than “greenwashing”. While Dawn Purchase, from the UK’s Marine Conservation Society, warns more generally that “the word ‘sustainable’ is often woefully misused”.

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Will the Dasgupta review breathe life into these sustainability efforts, or will it further perpetuate the greenwash? By recommending that exploitation of the oceans is made subject to international control, that taxes for shipping and fishing are introduced, that we reinvest more in conservation and encourage affection for nature education reform, the report could yet prise open new possiblity.

So the next time an oyster slides, alive, down your throat, remember Dickens’s Scrooge, and the truth that none of us is alone on this planet.

Inside these mystifying creatures is both a warning and a lesson: that we must steer economics on to a path that is not just “blue” but also truly “green”. Only then can we hope to dredge sustainability of its double meanings and filter out greenwashing’s hypocrisy.

[see also: The horror and wonder of jellyfish]

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