Could a byproduct of chip manufacturing be the next big thing in coastal conservation?
Have you heard the one about the potato and the oyster? It’s not a joke, but a game-changing technology -- a three-dimensional grid made from potato starch -- that has the potential to help reverse the decline of the world’s oyster reefs. It might not have the sexiest of names and it hasn’t even been fully tested yet, but Biodegradable EcoSystem Engineering Elements (otherwise known as BESE-elements) is already making waves in the world of coastal conservation.
The problem is that, as vital as they are, oyster beds are in serious decline. Like the balding, gray-suited film directors at the Oscars, oysters don’t get as much press as the colorfully coutured stars (coral reefs). But they are equally endangered. Over the last two centuries, 85% of the world’s oyster habitat has disappeared. Coastal run-off, natural predators, disease and over-harvesting have taken a toll. Oyster reefs that once grew 100 feet deep in some areas have been all-but eradicated by oyster dredges. “The health of our estuaries hangs in the balance,” says Birch. “The importance of restoring oyster reefs cannot be over emphasized.”
Birch has been a part of the solution since 2005 when she began managing the Conservancy’s Indian River Lagoon Restoration project. Charged with replenishing the lagoon’s oyster reefs, she was struck by the community support she received. “Until then I had no idea how charismatic oysters are. In the seven years I worked in the lagoon,” she remembers, “we attracted over 25,000 volunteers. Adults, school children, the disabled…people from all walks of life and abilities came out to help replenish the lagoon’s oyster beds, making and deploying oyster mats (a mesh with oyster shells attached, designed to attract baby oysters and become the foundation of a reef).”