Harbor Hack: Shoring up New York’s Waterways with a Billion Oysters

Ecologically minded instructors are training a fleet of teenage marine biologists with an ultimate goal of seeding the harbor with a billion bivalves.

Back when New York City was an archipelago of fields, forests and marshes, oysters abounded.

Around 330 square miles of oyster reefs dominated the New York Harbor, and billions of bivalves provided briny sustenance to the local Lenape people. But Europeans brought a familiar story of pollution, habitat destruction and over-exploitation.

In the 1800s, a million oysters slid down New Yorkers’ throats each day, and by the early 20th century those once-formidable reefs were all but wiped out, replaced by a toxic, largely lifeless sludge. Eaters who dared partake of the few surviving oyster beds often contracted cholera and typhoid. Declaring local oysters a public health hazard, New York City officially shut down its last bed in 1923.

“To me the New York oyster is more important as a symbol than as an appetizer,” says Paul Greenberg, whose beautiful book American Catch opens with an impassioned ode to that organism. “It proves that complex marine life is still possible in a place that most people assume has been killed off by human abuse. But it’s also a tether to the past, kind of like the Truffula seeds the Once-ler tosses down to the boy in Dr. Seuss’s Lorax.”

Now, a team of determined New Yorkers wants to bring those bivalves back, albeit for something other than eating. Last April they launched an initiative called the Billion Oyster Project, which largely relies on the efforts of students at the New York Harbor School on Governors Island, within casting distance of the Statue of Liberty. As its name implies, that public school sits smack dab on the NYC harbor, a boon for its water-heavy curriculum whose topics range from ocean engineering to scientific diving.

Oysters also feature heavily on the teaching menu. Mollusca aficionados and ecologically minded instructors are training a fleet of teenage marine biologists who, after five years of work, now churn out around two million oysters annually, with an ultimate goal of seeding the harbor with a billion bivalves.

“One billion oysters distributed across 100 acres would theoretically filter the entire standing volume of the New York Harbor — 75 billion gallons, from the Goethals to the Verrazano to the GWB — in just three days,” says Sam Janis, project manager at the New York Harbor Foundation.

Why? Not to sate NYC’s half-shell cravings — given pollution levels, homegrown oysters won’t be edible for decades or even centuries to come — but because these hard-shelled filter feeders provide free ecological services like cleaning the water and buffering coasts against storms.

“One billion oysters distributed across 100 acres would theoretically filter the entire standing volume of the New York Harbor — 75 billion gallons, from the Goethals to the Verrazano to the GWB — in just three days,” says Sam Janis, project manager at the New York Harbor Foundation.

But the project’s more fundamental goal, he adds, is “to educate all New York City students about the harbor and what they can do to restore it, work on it, play in it and make it theirs.”

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The students work both on the water and in the classroom, but the oyster rearing begins in the aquaculture lab on Governor’s Island’s southeast bend. Pete Malinowski, BOP’s director and the lab’s adviser, is an oysterman by birth: His family owns Fishers Island Oyster Farm off the eastern tip of Long Island, so he’s an old hand at tending shellfish. He and the Harbor School’s cofounder, Murray Fisher, imagined a multidisciplinary, immersive curriculum that combined various aspects of engineering, marine biology, conservation and maritime skills. At the same time, they wanted to do something for the city itself. From these ideas, the Billion Oyster Project was born.

While the New York Harbor is no Great Barrier Reef, legislation like the 1972 Clean Water Act has helped it improve enough over the years to sustain some marine life. Wild oyster reefs, however, have yet to return because those shellfish are exceptionally poor pioneers. They begin life as free-swimming larvae, but in order to settle down and grow they must affix themselves to a solid surface — preferably other oysters.

This creates a tricky predicament: Without existing oyster beds, even wild oysters that somehow stray into the city’s waters cannot grow. The oysters, in other words, need a bivalve beachhead.

A single oyster can filter between 24 and 50 gallons of water per day, so a billion could make a real difference. And as water quality improves, more wildlife will begin calling the harbor home.

Creating manmade oyster beds, Malinowski and others say, is the solution. This strategy has worked in other places, including the Chesapeake Bay. Once established, oysters can improve the water quality by sucking up pollutants — including excess nitrogen, phosphorous and other organic effluents — along with the microorganisms and algae they feast on. They digest the nutritious bits and spit out the unpalatable ones in mucousy secretions, which fall to the sea floor, removing them from the water column. A single oyster can filter between 24 and 50 gallons of water per day, so a billion could make a real difference. And as water quality improves, more wildlife will begin calling the harbor home.

Unfortunately, the bivalve’s filtration superpower also means oysters from our harbor will not be shucked and slurped anytime soon. But despite their toxic inedibility, there are more important reasons to restore oyster reefs. As Hurricane Sandy showed, New York is vulnerable to storm surge; natural obstacles such as reefs, mangroves and sand dunes help blunt the force of a charging storm. Again, a few hundred oysters won’t stop a hurricane in its tracks, but an entire reef system could reduce its damage.

“After we get more serious interest and investments,” Janis says, “maybe in 10 to 20 years, we’ll begin to see real physical resiliency.”

Besides cleaning and protecting the harbor, education is also at the heart of these oyster efforts. The majority of the city’s 1.1 million school kids spend all of their time “in boxes” (aka classrooms), Janis says, and their science lessons are far removed from the natural phenomena they’re supposed to study.

But not at the Harbor School. In its aquaculture lab, cauldrons of plankton glow green, and large cylindrical plastic tanks brim with spawning oysters. Students’ posters cover the walls, with titles such as “Spawning Dioecious Bivalves,” “Phylum Mollesca” and “Gamete Stripping.” Pupils are involved in every aspect of the project, including rearing the oysters, designing and building aquaculture facilities, testing water samples for nitrate levels and fecal contamination and, best of all, scuba diving to build underwater reefs. So far, they have established large-scale sites near Governors Island and at the mouth of the Bronx River.

This learning experience isn’t reserved only for Harbor School students. Any school or organization can adopt its own Billion Oyster garden, a mini-reef consisting of 300 to 500 oysters that can be visited on field trips. More than 30 city schools have signed up along with groups like the Lower East Side Ecology Center and the Sebago Canoe Club.

“Whether we’re successful in getting a billion oysters here in 10 years, 20 years or never, the most important thing is that we’re connecting kids to the water,” Janis says. Indeed, it was getting his own feet wet as a child — playing in a polluted New Jersey stream and a scrappy plot of woods — that fueled his lifelong love of the outdoors. “The harbor is NYC’s natural classroom,” he says.

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When Crown Heights native Derek Thompson first heard of the Harbor School, he was 13 and “in a bad spot.” He loved science, though, so he attended all the school’s events and put his name into its entry lottery as many times as possible. His efforts paid off, and he landed a spot.

When Thompson began his studies, he knew nothing about oysters. In fact, he had never even eaten one, the case for most new students. But he and his freshmen comrades got their chance to slurp in a sort of oyster-initiation ceremony.

“The teachers said, ‘You’re not a Harbor student unless you eat an oyster!’” he recalls.

Thompson’s slid down easily with some hot sauce and lemon juice; now, he loves steamed oysters, especially in a butter sauce. He graduated from the Harbor School three years ago and comes back to work as an aquaculture technician during breaks from Skidmore College. More importantly, he and a few friends have plans to open their own version of the Harbor School in Boston.

But as other oyster restoration efforts from around the country show, it takes constant effort to meet the demands of rearing millions of oysters. “The students do a lot, but we couldn’t do this without volunteers,” Malinowski says.

On a recent Friday afternoon, 30-something Google employees — all wearing matching blue shirts adorned with hearts, recycling signs and the label “Google Serve” — left their desks on 8th Avenue to spend an afternoon with the oysters. Some built cages that would eventually become oyster gardens, while others cleaned shells rescued from restaurants.

Volunteers assemble in Battery Park for the short ferry ride to Governors Island, where Malinowski gives them a lab tour and puts them to work. On a recent Friday afternoon, 30-something Google employees — all wearing matching blue shirts adorned with hearts, recycling signs and the label “Google Serve” — left their desks on 8th Avenue to spend an afternoon with the oysters. Some built cages that would eventually become oyster gardens, while others cleaned shells rescued from restaurants.

Ben Pollinger, executive chef at Oceana, helped conceive of the shell collection, and was the first restaurant to sign up. He’s bought oysters from the Malinowski family for 15 years and knows quite a bit about oyster life cycles himself.

“I’m naturally inquisitive, and I’ve always been very ecologically minded,” he says. “At my house as a kid, we always composted everything.” He remembers his parents and grandparents in New Jersey warning him not to swim in the polluted river, and forcing him to release the fish and eel he caught there, for fear of contamination.

Given his background, Pollinger was both concerned about the river’s health and aware of the environmental burdens humans place on the watershed. Each time another dozen empty oyster shells hit the trash at Oceana, he cringed, knowing that there must be some use for that organic material besides filling up landfills.

Pollinger wondered if his friend Pete might be able to use the shells from the 3,000 to 4,000 oysters the restaurant tossed out each week. Malinowski jumped at the idea.

Now, around half a dozen other restaurants donate their shells, too, including the Lobster Place in Chelsea Market, Grand Central Oyster Bar, Maison Premiere, Brooklyn Crab and Aquagrill.

“For me, the benefit is the satisfaction in knowing I’m diverting something that has a use away from the landfill,” Pollinger says. Volunteers from Earth Matter, a compost-centric nonprofit, pick up to 1,500 pounds of shells donated by restaurants each week, just skimming the surface of the approximately 300,000 pounds that seafood-loving New Yorkers leave behind every seven days.

Back on Governors Island, heaps of the rescued shells swarm with flies and reek of marine decay, but if the Google volunteers working behind “Do Not Enter” fences are put off by that pungent perfume, they do a good job of hiding it. Teams sift shells, spray them down and bag them in mesh tubes that will be put back out to sea for a year, where sun and elements will clean them of any remaining cocktail sauce. Once sterilized, each shell can support 10 to 20 baby oysters, although only a fraction will survive to adulthood.

After hours of wet, messy work, Janis and Malinowski reward the volunteers’ efforts with oysters on the half shell — from Virginia, that is, not New York Harbor. “I came here for the oysters,” one Google employee jokes. “There was a bit of a miscommunication with what this project was about.”

Wisecracks aside, the volunteers enjoyed “giving back,” as one puts it. And they’ve also learned. Earlier that day, when Janis asked the fresh-off-the-boat recruits if they knew why oysters are so important for the harbor, most shook their heads. Now, they emerged as knowledgeable New Yorkers versed in the restorative capabilities of the humble oyster.

“The ultimate goal,” Janis says, “is to reconnect all New Yorkers to the water.”

Photo credit: Nancy Borowick

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