Little Oysters, Big Deal: Telling Big Environmental Stories with Small Creatures

Photo: Jeremy Keith/Flickr
Photo: Jeremy Keith/Flickr

We’ve all heard about the plight of polar bears, rhinos, pandas and other critically endangered animals. These charismatic megafauna frequently get the lion’s share of the spotlight when it comes to conservation stories. And for good reason! Their survival has great implications for the health of their broader ecosystems. And, if they capture people’s imagination, why not use that to your advantage in communicating environmental messages?

But for many others, these animals can feel far away and intangible. It’s hard to make the connection between my actions in North Carolina and the impacts to a rhino in Africa. There’s a disconnect between polar bears— which most people only get to see in zoos or on television— and the wild ones on the front lines of climate change in the Arctic.

Enter the oyster. Contained in this little mollusk is the story of entire ocean ecosystems and coastal economies.

It is impossible to tell the story of oystermen in the Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico or Pacific Northwest without also also discussing the oyster’s role in the environment. To tell the story of the oyster is to explain how oysters cluster together at the bottom of the ocean, forming a base reef structures for other ocean species to congregate. How oysters filter their food from the water column, removing excess nutrients leached into the environment from industrial pollution and agricultural runoff, and providing clean water to the other fish, sea grasses and corals who share their home. How these tiny creatures serve as nature’s superheroes, undoing the damage we inflict on our waters.

By telling the story of a single species like the small, but mighty oyster, you can explain an entire ecosystem, and an entire coastal community’s way of life.

For many people, especially those residing on our ocean’s shores—oysters are real. Oysters are a part of the local cuisine and the local culture. It’s much easier to understand the connection between your behavior and the health of an animal when the animal lives in your backyard.

Author Mark Kurlansky is the master of this technique— telling big environmental stories using small creatures. His most famous book, Cod, laid out a 1,000 year history of the Atlantic through the role of cod. Another one of his books, The Big Oyster, does an excellent job of explaining how unsustainable harvesting practices of the past, combined with increasing environmental pressures in the present have completely wiped out New York’s historical oyster beds. This same phenomenon can be seen in shell fishing communities all over the country, posing a threat to the people whose livelihoods depend on the survival of this little creature.

When trying to tell big, environmental stories, we’re often drawn to the unfamiliar and exotic. But sometimes, it can be just as useful to think small. Any number of species will do— honeybees, menhaden, or krill, just to name a few. The key is to make it personal. What species do people have strong memories of? What animals make us think of home?