Aw Shucks! Don’t Be Shy… How the Little Oyster Can Help Save NY from the Impact of Climate Change
Volunteering with the Billion Oyster Project
When you think of oysters, what comes to mind? Fresh oysters on the half shell served with horseradish or lemon or sriracha sauce? Broiled Rockefeller style oysters, topped with herbs, butter and breadcrumbs? YUM!
What about as a keystone species that plays both an essential role in the ecosystems of shorelines, and can help solve the challenges of the impact of climate change?
The Billion Oyster Project (BOP) is focused on this unassuming, yet very powerful, resource, by pledging to restore 1 billion oysters to the NY harbor by 2035.
Since 2014 BOP has worked with various NYC communities, schools, scientists, and volunteers, to restore oysters at 18 active restoration sites across the 5 NYC boroughs.
They have developed a K-12 STEM curriculum and work with over 100 schools across NYC with hands-on activities to help students become citizen-scientists working to solve local environmental challenges.
They work with the Urban Assembly NY Harbor School, helping prepare students of the HS on Governors Island for maritime careers. And they also have involved almost 15,000 volunteers at various projects to help be part of the restoration process. Building a community focused on helping the community!
Top 3 key environmental roles the oyster plays:
- One single adult oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water a day! They absorb nitrates, ammonia, phosphates, plankton, and bacteria, and reduce excess algae and sediment. Oysters help keep the water clean and full of oxygen.
- The reefs oysters create together are natural barriers that protect shorelines from erosion, tides, and storm surge (reducing flooding, softening the blow of large waves, and preventing erosion).
- Like coral reefs, oyster reefs foster biodiversity by providing a 3-D living. clean, oxygen-filled habitat for hundreds of species of marine wildlife.
Back before Henry Hudson traveled up the New York river that was to eventually be given his name, oysters were everywhere and had long been a staple food of the local Lenape peoples. Archeological evidence of mounds of shells (called middens) up to 4 feet high date back to 6950 BCE (1) and reveal that oysters were not only plentiful, but were much larger than the kind we see today – up to a foot long on average and many much longer! (2)
Oysters, Oysters Everywhere!
In the early 1600’s, with the arrival of Henry Hudson and the Europeans, the New York harbor was home to over 350 sq. miles(3) of oyster beds.
It is said, from writings at that time, it was easy to reach into the water and pluck out large oysters like fruit from a tree.
Through the late 1700s, nearly half the world’s oysters were produced in the NY Harbor.(2)
In fact, Oysters were the original street vendor food. In the mid to late 1700s and early 1800s (long before the hot dog), street cart vendors selling oysters along with hot corn, peanuts and buns, were ubiquitous throughout the streets of New York.
By 1927, however, oysters in the New York harbor were all but extinct due to:
- The expansion of NY – the dredging of the harbor and extension of the tip of NY was built over oyster beds,
- Pollution – The drastic increase in shipping and boat traffic in the harbor along with (up until 1972, with the passage of the Clean Water Act) the dumping of millions of gallons of raw, untreated sewage in the harbor every day, killed oyster beds in droves. Note here – unfortunately NYC’s combined sewer system still ejects sewage with storm water during peak flow – once it hits 1/4 inch high – continuing to damage beds and pollute the waterways).(4) EWWW!
As a volunteer, I was signed up to help a group build oyster reef structures, called gabions, and prepare shells for the hatchery by sifting through them for unwanted debris. It was a 5-hour shift (including a lunch break). There were about 15-20 people volunteering that day.
We started the day with a group meeting where our host-leader, Inca, had us introduce ourselves and explained all about the process of growing oysters and creating a reef. They also gave us some of the history of the Billion Oyster Project. It was very interesting! Throughout the day Inca was there to give guidance and answer the tons of questions we seemed to have. They were wonderful and kept us motivated and the day exciting!
A gabion is a steel mesh cube that fits snugly into a raw bar steel frame. There are hollow columns in the middle of the structure to allow water, air, and nutrients to flow through (as well as marine life). The structure provides a strong, current-resistant, 3-D environment.
It is filled with juvenile oysters that have attached themselves to recycled oyster shells (they are called spat). The juveniles are raised in a safe environment at the Harbor School Hatchery then, once established and strong enough, moved into the gabions.
The gabions are then placed in areas where reefs are being developed. Over time, the mesh degrades, but the steel frame remains, while the newly-planted oysters grow and cement together.
Our job was to construct as many of the mesh gabions as possible during our shift. Staff from the BOP were on hand to provide educational lessons and to answer our ongoing questions.
Since 2014, BOP has restored 100 million juvenile oysters in the harbor. Over the past year or so they have found the oysters are starting to reproduce by themselves in the harbor. An exciting sign the population can become self-sustaining! In addition, BOP is now finding a wider variety of marine life around the oyster reefs, such as crabs, seahorses, pufferfish, herring, striped bass, red bearded sponges and more.
In order to grow the oysters to create the reefs, BOP needs millions and millions of shells.
So… where do all the shells come from?
BOP partners with over 70 restaurants in NYC to collect the discarded shells of oysters consumed by their patrons.
BOP provides special buckets for collection and then partners with a shell collection service to pick them up and dump them onto long, 4-5 foot high piles of shells on Governors Island (middens).
These 70+ restaurants can donate up to 7,000 pounds of shells a week!
Since 2014 they have collected over 2+ million pounds of recycled shells, repurposing them to build the oyster reefs and keeping them out of landfills. Yet another way BOP is caring for the environment.
The second part of the volunteer shift was to help look through the middens (the piles of recycled shells donated by restaurants) for objects that don’t belong such as plastic bags and bottles, metal forks and other cutlery, rocks, etc. We also threw away any mussel shells since those would harm the oyster beds.
The middens were 4 to 5 feet tall about 25-30 feet long. They shells deposited there are first picked clean by the birds and critters and cleaned by the sun and rain. The piles are turned intermittently so they can get exposed to all that happens. They rest there about a year. Then there’s a manual cleaning with a tumbler that scrubs them the rest of the way so they are ready to be taken to the hatchery to become part of the project.
The hatchery is a set of semi-open, topless shipping containers where the baby oysters are able to latch onto the cleaned shells and grow to juveniles in a less hostile environment than the open harbor.
Harbor water still flows through the hatchery, but the hatchlings are semi-protected until they are deemed strong enough to be put into the open harbor.
By the end of the day’s volunteer shift, we’d made about 6 or 7 of the gabions and had learned tons from our BOP guide and team member.
It was a fascinating day!
I hope you enjoyed the journey with me. XO XO
How do I Learn More and Get Involved?
To learn more about the Billion Oyster Project and oyster reefs, or donate to this amazing cause, please visit their website at: https://www.billionoysterproject.org/
If you are a teacher and are interested in their resources and educational materials/curriculum, please check out: https://www.billionoysterproject.org/educators
(note – they have wonderful materials for every classroom – you do NOT need to be a NYC school to participate or find value in the materials)
(1) Wood, S. (n.d.). Pearls of Old New York. Fraunces Tavern Museum. https://www.frauncestavernmuseum.org/pearls-of-old-new-york
(2) Nigro, C. (2011, June 2). History on the Half Shell: The Story of New York City and Its Oysters. Blog of the New York Public Library. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/06/01/history-half-shell-intertwined-story-new-york-city-and-its-oysters
(3) Kurlansky, M. (2007). The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. Random House Trade Paperback.
(4) Hynes, T. (2022, August 4). Aw Shucks: The Tragic History of New York City Oysters. Untapped New York. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://untappedcities.com/2022/08/04/history-new-york-oysters/
(5) Ellis, E. R. (2004). Epic of New York City: A Narrative History. Basic Books, Reprint Edition. https://doi.org/ISBN-13: 978-0786714360