Oysters are known for their prodigious capacity to filter water and remove nitrogen, which supports biodiversity.
There was a time in New York City when oyster stands were the food trucks of the 19th century, the oysters in numbers so plentiful in the city’s harbor that they were sold on street corners to passers-by all day long. An abundance of oysters and shells meant the early Dutch settlers called Liberty Island, where the iconic Statue of Liberty stands today, by a different name: Great Oyster Island.
By 1905, though, the oysters were gone. Unchecked harvesting reduced their numbers, and pollution destroyed their habitats. The 89,000 hectares of reefs that greeted Henry Hudson in 1609 were a historical memory, and so were the environmental benefits.
“The pristine estuary, with oysters at the base, hosted thousands of associated species and was one of the most biologically productive, diverse and dynamic environments on the planet,” explains the Billion Oyster Project, led by executive director Pete Malinowski. That was lost to an essentially dead harbor until the Clean Water Act of 1972 put an end to dumping toxic waste and raw sewage. Decades of the cumulative damage to oysters followed.
Today, the project is working hard to restore the oysters and their important contribution to the environmental health of the harbor and the millions of people who live near it. Their efforts are especially critical as climate change threats loom and researchers warn of a coming “oysterpocalypse.” That’s a loss no one wants to see.
Oysters are known for their prodigious capacity to filter water and remove nitrogen, to support biodiversity – there are now even seahorses in the partially restored New York Harbor – and the project’s reef-building is designed to buffer the city from storms and rising seas.
Co-founder and board chairman Murray Fisher says it’s essentially an urban estuary rewilding project. A big one, that grew from a pilot school project 15 years ago to promote opportunities in aquaculture, marine biology and more through the public school system.
Filmmakers, local volunteers, the schools and restaurants all are helping to restore the oyster ecosystem. First they have to rebuild reefs, because oysters are larvae in the first few weeks of life and will die in the mud if they don’t attach to a hard surface. New York City restaurants serve about a half million oysters each week and the Billion Oyster Project calls their shells “restoration gold.”
Instead of going to landfills, shells are collected from dozens of participating restaurants to build the oyster reefs. Landmark New York City neighborhoods like Brooklyn and Coney Island have their own local oyster reefs, supported by community volunteers and citizen science efforts. More than 1,000 people have contributed their time, with a goal of restoring 100 acres of oyster reef by 2035.
The project says each oyster shell “recycled” to the reef supports up to 20 new oysters, and so far they’ve planted 28 million oysters. Some shells are seeded with larvae at one of three project nurseries, which in turn provide STEM education opportunities to local schools including the flagship Harbor School. A documentary featuring the school students premiered in December on the Discovery Channel, while the project video here explains how it all got started.