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Way Downstream … (Dec. 5-11, 2019)

When oyster stew required a very big pot

photo by Stephen Salpukas / Big oysters had big benefits according to a report released by William & Mary ­professors Rowan Lockwood, above, and Roger Mann.

     There’s much to learn from studying oysters from long ago, according to newly published research from two William & Mary professors.

         Rowan Lockwood, who chairs the Geology Department, and Roger Mann, a professor in the Department of Fisheries Science, report their findings in a fascinating new paper based on examining oyster reefs from the Pleistocene epoch — which stretched until about 12,000 years ago.

         For one thing, oysters from the bygone era were big, which had benefits beyond feeding native populations that dined on them.

         “Larger oysters filter significantly more water, remove more algae, produce more offspring, buffer more acidic Bay water, recycle more nitrogen and possibly even bury more carbon than smaller ones,” Lockwood said, as reported by Joe McClain, William & Mary’s director of research communications.

         The paper, available at Royal Society Publishing (https://bit.ly/2DlEaRv), notes that oyster restoration efforts are hampered by long-term monitoring data.

         Using what the authors refer to as a conservation paleobiological approach, they say: “We have demonstrated that Chesapeake Bay oysters are capable of growing to significantly larger sizes, longer lifespans and more abundant populations than previously recognized.”

         Of course, Bay oysters today endure a range of threats that we all know about: Overharvesting, disease, sediment pollution and climate change, the authors observe.

         Nonetheless, we can dream of the day when we might order a po-boy with one gimongous oyster on a very large bun.