Kate Hampson l Kyeema Foundation - Jun 20 2023
Palladium Challenge Fund Recipient: Oyster Heaven’s Innovation for Oyster Reef Restoration

For the past 20 years, Palladium has committed 1.5% of its profit before tax to the company’s global giving platform. Through this platform and in partnership with the Kyeema Foundation, Palladium funds humanitarian relief efforts, supports community projects nominated by employees, and runs an annual Challenge Fund to tackle a major global problem.

In oceans around the world, oyster reefs remove suspended solids and excess nutrients, including nitrogen compounds, from water, acting as a natural filter for their ecosystems. But overfishing, diseases and habitat destruction have brought native oysters to near extinction, directly impacting the livelihoods of fisherman and the environment.

The increased use of chemical fertilizers in recent decades has led to the accumulation of nitrogen and phosphorus in coastal ecosystems. This in turn has resulted in mass phytoplankton production and algae blooms that damage the structure and function of these ecosystems, making marine life difficult.

Oyster Heaven, a marine restoration group, has an innovative approach to oyster reef restoration that they are hopeful will reverse these effects for marine ecosystems around the world, at scale and at low cost.

“We found that restoration attempts had been limited in the past due to both lack of funding and an environmentally friendly surface where the oysters could thrive at large scale,” explains Oyster Heaven founder George Birch.

“With this in mind, we developed a new type of cheap, low carbon, biodegradable hard substrate specific for oysters, which we called Mother Reef. It will completely disintegrate over the life of the project, leaving only the restored oyster reefs.”

Oyster Heaven received funding through Palladium’s Challenge Fund in 2021, which asked organisations to offer creative solutions to make protecting nature a more valuable economic pursuit than its destruction. Oyster Heaven's project aims to rejuvenate lost oyster reefs in the North Sea by synthetically recreating the biofilm and attractants produced by oyster shells, resulting in improved settlement rates on reef structures, using sustainable and natural means.

Funding from the Challenge Fund supported the implementation of a biofilm study to demonstrate that a functional and thriving ecosystem can be established in areas where significant degradation has occurred. Once restored, these ecosystems can then start to provide the nutrient processing and sequestering that was lost.

Putting Research to the Test

By coating the Mother Reef with the right biofilm, the organisation hoped to help the oyster larvae settle and allow for large-scale restoration.

In the first stage of their research, Oyster Heaven conducted an experiment on the transfer of native biofilm on the Mother Reef. The results confirmed the transfer of biofilm on the surface of the bricks within 30 minutes of exposure and analysis found numerous bacteria critical for the ocean’s ability to store carbon.

In the second stage, Oyster Heaven worked with the Danish Shellfish Research Centre in Nykøbing Mors, Denmark (DTU Aqua) to study the efficiency of the native biofilm in larval settlement. While unexpected changes in temperatures and tides affected the field experiment, the team was still able to carry out the experiment at the hatchery under controlled conditions. “The results showed that healthy larvae settled on both substrates, confirming that they can settle on the Mother Reef. They were then deployed in the sea and we’re currently monitoring them,” Birch adds.

Valuable information and key learnings have been generated from this field study, particularly in verifying that oyster larvae can settle on the Mother Reefs, which will be crucial for future biofilm experiments and pilot projects. However, there are significant challenges that need to be addressed, such as the reliance on environmental conditions for the recruitment of wild larvae and the potential limitations of biofilm formation. The important learning was that spats – larvae attached to a surface – on bricks is the better option for large scale restoration.

After ten months of research and a comprehensive review of previous results, Oyster Heaven is compiling the characterisations of the microflora associated with existing oyster reefs into a manuscript to be submitted for publication by the end of December 2023.

"The Challenge funding has ignited our venture, already yielding intriguing results and guiding our future scientific endeavours,” Birch adds. “Equally crucial is the fact that this initial investment has sent strong signals to prospective investors for the forthcoming funding stages for Oyster Heaven. We are profoundly grateful to Palladium for launching us on this remarkable journey."

For the past 20 years, Palladium has committed 1.5 per cent of its profit to the company’s global giving platform, Let’s Make it Possible. Through this platform and in partnership with the Kyeema Foundation, Palladium funds humanitarian relief efforts, supports community projects nominated by employees, and runs an annual Challenge Fund to tackle a major global problem.