Dying, Decaying, and Dissolving into Irrelevance: First Direct in-the-Field Estimate of Crassostrea virginica Shell Loss: A Case History from Mississippi Sound

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Coastal Sciences, Gulf Coast Research Laboratory


Ocean Science and Engineering


© 2020 National Shellfisheries Association. All rights reserved. A mass mortality event that occurred in the Mississippi Sound in September 2016 provided an opportunity for the first natural field study of the rate of taphonomic loss of oyster shell. At the Pass Christian Reef, limited recruitment in the years following the mortality event resulted in little shell addition over a 2.67-y period, thereby permitting a direct comparison between shell present as living oysters in August 2016 and dead shell collected in April/May 2019. By April 2019, most oyster shell valves were riddled with holes, some of which perforated the valves. Deterioration of the shell surface was ubiquitous, and edge erosion was commonplace. Left valves were preferentially preserved: the left valves comprised 67% of the intact valves and 85% of the minor fragments after 2.67 y. Thus, at the time of collection, minimally 50% of the right valves originally present on the reef had disappeared. The increased differential between left and right valves of the minor fragments suggests a continuing differential in preservation, leading to cultch being overwhelmingly represented by left valves. Based on estimates derived from changes in shell weight at length and estimates of right-valve loss, by April 2019, between 30% and 51% of the carbonate originally added to the reef in 2016 was lost, yielding an estimated oyster shell half-life of between 2.6 and 5.1 y in the Mississippi Sound. The half-lives estimated from this first infield experiment fall precisely within the range of previous less direct estimates from laboratory experiments or survey time series. Oyster shell degrades rapidly: case histories now include a wide latitudinal range and a wide temperature range, which suggests that these rapid shell degradation rates are the norm over most of the range of the eastern oyster. Understanding the impermanence of oyster shell is crucial to the sustainable management of oyster reefs, as the addition of shell to the reef framework must balance rapid shell degradation rates to prevent stock collapse and ultimately the loss of reef structure.

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Journal of Shellfish Research





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