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On a sunny afternoon in April, Katie Nichols crouched over the edges of a small oyster reef in Newport Bay, California, peering into the mud that had been exposed by the receding tide. Where all I saw was a jumble of interchangeable shell fragments, Nichols quickly spotted what she was looking for.

“There,” she said, pointing to a small, white shell. “That’s what a native looks like.”

Nichols was pointing to an Olympia oyster, the only oyster species native to the Pacific Coast of the United States. Smaller and rounder than non-native Pacific oysters, it was once abundant in the bays and estuaries of the California coast — but during the gold rush in the 1880s, the native species was overharvested, and the population collapsed. The oyster became “functionally extinct” in Southern California, according to Nichols, and today, much of the habitat where it could have settled has been degraded. 

Alexandria Herr / Grist

Nichols, the marine restoration director of Orange County Coastkeeper, a nonprofit clean water organization in Southern California, is working on a project trying to resurrect the Olympia oyster — at least in Newport B... Read more

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