Atlantic and Gulf Coast Oyster Reefs Are at Historic Lows but Can Recover

A collection of Pew materials about this critical habitat and strategies for its protection and restoration

Oyster Reefs Are at Historic Lows but Can Recover
Eastern oysters and salt marsh dominate a stretch of shoreline in South Carolina’s Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, which provides habitat for bottlenose dolphins, loggerhead turtles, American alligators, nearly 300 species of birds, and countless fish and other marine animals.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Oysters have been part of the human diet for millennia. In the United States, they were a “founding food,” providing a valuable source of protein for Native Americans and European settlers. They were once abundant and cheap, but overfishing, habitat loss, pollution, and disease decimated their populations during the 20th century. Today, three-quarters of the world’s wild oyster reefs are found in just five locations along the mid-Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts. With oyster populations at historic lows, communities are losing not only fresh wild seafood but also the many other benefits of oysters, which filter coastal water, provide habitat for diverse marine life, buffer coastlines against strong storms, and support jobs and recreational activities that rely on healthy estuaries. 

Fortunately, oysters are remarkably resilient, and under the right conditions, they can rebuild productive reefs quickly, often in two to five years. Governments, conservation groups, researchers, and oyster growers in states along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts have taken steps to halt the loss and kick-start the recovery of this keystone species. They are developing statewide plans to coordinate research on and management of commercial harvest, aquaculture, and restoration and building new reefs, sometimes out of shells collected from restaurants and coastal communities. 

Recognizing the importance of clean water and the need for sufficient adult oysters to spawn and seed reefs, fishery managers and local governments also are safeguarding oyster habitat and designating some reefs as protected sanctuaries to help boost the populations. In addition, a burgeoning oyster farming, or mariculture, industry has the potential to meet consumer demand for oysters while also contributing some of the same ecological benefits as wild oyster reefs. 

The challenges and opportunities for oyster recovery vary from state to state, but in each location, science and collaboration with stakeholders can lead to long-lasting solutions that will allow future generations to benefit from all that oysters have to offer.




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The front facade of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, DC.

Agenda for America

A collection of resources to help federal, state, and local decision-makers set an achievable agenda for all Americans

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Data-driven policymaking is not just a tool for finding new solutions for emerging challenges, it makes government more effective and better able to serve the public interest. In the coming months, President Joe Biden and the 117th Congress will tackle a number of environmental, health, public safety, and fiscal and economic issues—nearly all of them complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. To help solve specific, systemic problems in a nonpartisan fashion, Pew has compiled a series of briefings and recommendations based on our research, technical assistance, and advocacy work across America.


America’s Coastal Habitats Are Beautiful, Vital, and Worth Protecting

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America’s Coastal Habitats Are Beautiful, Vital, and Worth Protecting

Although coastal habitats make up only a little more than 3 percent of the United States’ marine territory (about 146,000 square miles), they have an outsized positive impact, encompassing highly productive areas essential to ocean life health.