SAUNDERSTOWN – A local environmental conservation organization is asking for the public’s help in studying local oyster populations. The Narrow River Preservation Association (NRPA), along with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), is requesting anyone with a dock on Narrow River and some spare time to assist in assessing the health of the shellfish living in the estuary. Volunteers would simply hang a 12” x 12” tile on the underside of the dock and keep track of how many baby oysters settle on it. 

“Once per month, we’ll ask you to pull up the tile, use calipers to measure and count the new oyster recruits, record the information on a data sheet, and then put the tile back in the water,” a joint press release from NRPA and TNC reads. “NRPA and TNC will use the information to monitor the health of the population and identify oyster restoration sites.” 

While enjoyed as a local delicacy, oysters help provide a lot more than just a good meal or appetizer - they serve as cleaners and purifiers of the water bodies they inhabit. Oysters are filter feeders, meaning they eat by pumping large volumes of water through their bodies. In the process, potentially harmful materials and contaminants present in the water, such as plankton, algae and other particles, are captured by the shellfish’s mucus in its gills. Once consumed by the oyster, the remaining particles, stripped of their nutrients, are then expelled to the bottom of the water body and are no longer harmful. According to the joint release from NRPA and TNC, oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water daily and “provide habitat for juvenile fish,” due to larvae forming on adult oysters. When adult oysters naturally form layers, the resulting oyster-based reef serves as a suitable habitat for hundreds of species of marine life, from small fish to large fish. 

Despite the aquatic services the small shellfish provide, the local oyster population is shrinking, currently sitting at 5 percent less than what they once were, according to NRPA and TNC. The problem, however, is not unique to Rhode Island or New England. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, climate change has had a negative impact on the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population, reducing it to a fraction of what it once was. Some organizations have estimated that the wild oyster population of the Chesapeake Bay has shrunk down to about 1 percent of what it once was in recent years.   

These declines in population, while harrowing, do provide an opportunity for environmentally minded organizations like NRPA and TNC to assist, and they are asking for help. All that’s required to join in the effort to preserve the local oyster population is a dock on Narrow River, a couple minutes of spare time, the ability to lift 25 pounds and a “passion for saving nature and restoring marine life.” Narrow River has one of the state’s few self-sustaining wild oyster populations. Volunteers can now work with the two groups to help keep the populations self sustaining. 

“By partnering with TNC and NRPA, you can help strengthen the local oyster reefs for the many benefits they provide and ensure that future generations will inherit a cleaner, healthier Narrow River,” the joint statement concludes. 

Volunteers will be asked for their assistance from June through October. If interested in volunteering, please get started by contacting Will Helt, TNC coastal restoration specialist, at (401) 214-4528 or William.helt@tnc.org.

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