Many Hands Make Light Work: Restoring oysters with collaboration and community


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Group sampling for plankton, getting a close look at marine plants, students viewing the bay


One of the many perks of being an estuarine scientist is spending time looking closely at small animals hidden in the bay mud while listening to waves breaking gently nearby. Research often brings scientists from the Estuary & Ocean Science Center to the pockets of wild shoreline tucked in around the bustling San Francisco Bay. When scientists visit these places, it is typically to collect quantitative data, like counting and measuring the oysters living on specific rocks. The work is often repetitive and might be tedious if it weren’t for the constant questions that arise from spending time on the muddy shore. Last spring, I had the chance to share this experience with people from many backgrounds – students and a teacher from Davidson Middle School in San Rafael, Girl Scouts, a young couple on a date, and even my own daughters. Under the leadership of Dr. Chela Zabin from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Tiburon, we were all searching for invasive predatory snails, called Atlantic oyster drills, on Lani’s Beach at the Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary. We weren’t counting oysters because there aren’t many left here. The snails ate the oysters.

Dr. Zabin is part of a collaborative team of scientists from the Estuary & Ocean Science Center, National Estuarine Research Reserve, UC Davis, and the University of Massachusetts who have been studying native oysters in the San Francisco Bay. They are piecing together an understanding of where and how native oysters survive in the bay, and using that knowledge to restore oyster populations. One of their driving ideas is that more robust native oyster populations would sustain more diverse food webs while also protecting shorelines from waves, erosion, and flooding. The most recent project explores how oysters can be restored in areas where predatory snails are present.

One possible solution to the snail problem is to collect and remove all the snails from the restoration area. They are snails, after all, and therefore not too fast! To test this approach, the research team needed many more hands. Willing helpers were trained through a workshop for teachers, hands-on work with Audubon Youth Leaders, and the very popular weekend volunteer days. This expanded research team helped catch snails - over 17,000 of them – and they also helped by sharing observations, asking new questions, and suggesting new ideas. The project will wrap up this Fall, not just with the usual grant reports and scientific papers, but also with a public forum open to everyone who participated or who might want to participate in another future community-based research project.

The oyster drill project was funded by the California State Coastal Conservancy and the Marin Community Foundation through the Advancing Nature-Based Adaptation Solutions in Marin program.

Image above: Teachers from Davidson Middle School work alongside Dr. Chela Zabin. Photo and story: Sarah Ferner