Heroes

Our fancy dinner oysters can tell us a lot about how our oceans are changing.

Find out why some baby oysters can't form strong shells.

Our fancy dinner oysters can tell us a lot about how our oceans are changing.
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The Wilderness Society

Oysters. We love 'em.

You can imagine why people love oysters so much: They're a low-fat, high-protein food with a fresh, briny flavor — nature's perfect bar snack.

New York Times food writer Mark Bittman is a fan, too. When he moved from the Big Apple to San Francisco in January, trips to a raw bar at a local market became part of his weekend routine.


But "there are troubled waters ahead for oysters," according to Bittman.

Image via Mark Bittman: California Matters.

Oysters are threatened by ocean acidification.

When we use fossil fuels, it not only endangers animals in the ocean with oil spills, but it also changes the actual chemistry of the ocean.

The extra carbon dioxide that burning fossil fuels adds to the environment causes ocean acidification, which lowers the water's pH level and can affect the skeletons and shells of sea creatures. The extra CO2 also affects the level of calcium carbonate minerals, which are important components of the shells of oysters and other shellfish.

Here's a visual of how the ocean is changing over time because of fossil fuel use.

The future has more jellyfish, fewer healthy coral reefs, and sick little shellfish on the bottom of the acidified ocean. Source: ClimateCentral.org, used with permission.

Ocean acidification means baby oysters can't form strong shells.

Without their calcium carbonate homes, the soft, naked bodies of oysters don't do so well. Oysters and other shellfish have evolved to protect themselves from predators with their shells. Clams without clam shells are not very tough.

Though acidification affects oceans worldwide, some of the early effects are being felt on the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada.

One family of oyster farmers has already moved away Washington to Hawaii. A shellfish farmer in British Columbia reported the loss of 10 million scallops due to ocean acidification.

The reason the West Coast is being hit with ocean acidification is also one of the reasons why it's such an abundant ecosystem. The area experiences "upwelling," a term for a pattern of water moving in the ocean.

As the cold water currents deep in the ocean hit obstacles (like the coast of California), that layer of cold water moves up toward the surface. The cold water from the deep brings up nutrients that support animal life, but it is also more acidified than the warmer surface of the ocean.

Experts expect the effects of upwells to worsen as we continue to burn fossil fuels in the coming decades.

Researchers are seeing the impact of ocean acidification firsthand.

In the video below, Mark Bittman discusses the future of oysters with researchers from the University of California, Davis. He visits them at the Hog Island Oyster Farm, an hour and a half drive north of San Francisco, to understand how climate change is affecting one of his favorite items on the menu.

The cure for ocean acidification? Leave fossil fuels in the ground.

By cutting the use of fossil fuels such as coal, we can help stop the ocean acidification already underway. Do it for the shellfish. Or do it because you love seafood snacks. Either way, it's a healthier ocean.

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When Molly Reeser was a student at Michigan State University, she took a job mucking horse stalls to help pay for classes. While she was there, she met a 10-year-old girl named Casey, who was being treated for cancer, and — because both were animal lovers — they became fast friends.

Two years later, Casey died of cancer.

"Everyone at the barn wanted to do something to honor her memory," Molly remembers. A lot of suggestions were thrown out, but Molly knew that there was a bigger, more enduring way to do it.

"I saw firsthand how horses helped Casey and her family escape from the difficult and terrifying times they were enduring. I knew that there must be other families who could benefit from horses in the way she and her family had."

Molly approached the barn owners and asked if they would be open to letting her hold a one-day event. She wanted to bring pediatric cancer patients to the farm, where they could enjoy the horses and peaceful setting. They agreed, and with the help of her closest friends and the "emergency" credit card her parents had given her, Molly created her first Camp Casey. She worked with the local hospital where Casey had been a patient and invited 20 patients, their siblings and their parents.

The event was a huge success — and it was originally meant to be just that: a one-day thing. But, Molly says, "I believe Casey had other plans."

One week after the event, Molly received a letter from a five-year-old boy who had brain cancer. He had been at Camp Casey and said it was "the best day of his life."

"[After that], I knew that we had to pull it off again," Molly says. And they did. Every month for the next few years, they threw a Camp Casey. And when Molly graduated, she did the most terrifying thing she had ever done and told her parents that she would be waitressing for a year to see if it might be possible to turn Camp Casey into an actual nonprofit organization. That year of waitressing turned into six, but in the end she was able to pull it off: by 2010, Camp Casey became a non-profit with a paid staff.

"I am grateful for all the ways I've experienced good luck in my life and, therefore, I believe I have a responsibility to give back. It brings me tremendous joy to see people, animals, or things coming together to create goodness in a world that can often be filled with hardships."

Camp Casey serves 1500 children under the age of 18 each year in Michigan. "The organization looks different than when it started," Molly says. "We now operate four cost-free programs that bring accessible horseback riding and recreational services to children with cancer, sickle cell disease, and other life-threatening illnesses."

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