This month’s Ocean Hero is not a single person, but an organisation based in New York City that has created an entire ecosystem of change focused on one organism: the oyster. The Billion Oyster Project is a nonprofit on a mission to restore one billion oysters to New York Harbor through public education initiatives. They are regrowing New York’s oyster population after it was wiped out in under 100 years through reef reconstruction and community education and engagement to revive the marine ecosystem for the betterment of the environment and for the people and communities of New York.
By 2035, they aim to restore one billion live oysters on around 100 acres of reefs in New York Harbor. Yep, you heard that right. One Billion oysters.
We caught up with Ben LoGuidice, Hatchery Technician and Agata Poniatowski Education Engagement Manager from the Billion Oyster Project to talk about all things oysters!
What is the history of oysters in New York City?
Oysters have a strong historical and cultural presence in NYC that people don’t realise, the Dutch once called Ellis Island the Little Oyster Island and Liberty Island the Great Oyster Island. Back in the 1600s, New York Harbor was one of the most diverse and dynamic environments on the planet, with 220,000 acres of oyster reefs.
People often start with the history of oysters in 1609, at that time there were 350 square miles of oysters. The Lenape tribe was the tribe living here and protecting the ecosystem & harvesting oysters in the harbor before that time. What many people don’t know is that the oyster carts were just as abundant as modern day hot dog and hallal stands used to be oyster stands. Oysters were one of the starting points of take out foods in the post Erie Canal economic boom - the modern day chipotle!
The exploitation of the oysters meant that by 1906 the oyster population had plummeted. The reefs were dredged up or covered in silt and the water quality was too poor to support any kind of life. The last commercial bed closed in 1918. It wasn’t until 2010 that the water quality began to improve enough that oysters and other life could survive in New York Harbor.
How did the Billion Oyster Project start?
The Billion Oyster Project (BOP) was founded in 2014 by Murray Fisher and Pete Malinowsk who met at the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, where Murray served as Director and Pete taught Aquaculture. This idea sparked from an after school oyster gardening club. They found that when students are given real responsibility, like helping to restore a degraded New York Harbor, they rise to the occasion with great excitement. While working on it, they realised how important oysters are for our ecosystem and the Billion Oyster Project began. Our mission is to restore oyster reefs to New York Harbor through public education initiatives.
To build the base of your oyster reefs, you need A LOT of shells. How does the shell collection program work?
In 2015 we began the shell collection programme, and now partners with about 75 restaurants in NYC and have collected 1.7 million pounds of shell. This programme provided restaurants with an opportunity to not only divert shells from landfills, but also to reclaim this valuable resource for the restoration of oyster reefs. After they serve their oysters, they then put them in a specific receptacle for oyster shells and once a week we collect them.
Millions of shells are essential to restoring one billion oysters. We spawn our oysters onto the shells, and when we put the shells in the water, it creates habitat for other sessile and mobile species, and young oysters must settle on a hard surface to survive. So far, we have diverted 1.7 million pounds of oyster shells into restoration efforts.
Can you tell us a bit more about the benefits of Oysters in New York Harbor?
Oysters provide habitat for a number of different organisms. It’s a domino effect, when we install oyster reefs in the harbor in different locations, we’ll see much more biodiversity in the harbor. Recently we had seahorses, crabs, fish and even anemones in the harbor! This is because often the sea creatures in this area lack aquatic vegetation that could be a habitat. So these reefs are essential for their survival. Reefs are to the ocean what trees are to the forest. Oysters are a keystone species - as oysters grow, they grow on top of each other and form complex structures, creating a hardy infrastructure for a lively underwater city of marine wildlife.
Oysters are also ‘filter feeders’, which means they filter water as they eat. This helps to clear the water and remove certain pollutants, including excess nitrogen. This is really important to a marine ecosystem because excessive nitrogen triggers algal blooms that deplete the water of oxygen, creating ‘dead zones’. Just one adult oyster is capable of filtering up to 50 gallons per day.
Finally, due to their complex structures, if a reef is big enough, it has the capacity to help with wave attenuation. If a powerful wave hits a shoreline that is protected by an established, robust oyster reef, the reef can absorb and disperse some of that wave energy, which can help reduce flooding and erosion.
How do you engage New Yorkers in conservation?
Billion Oyster Project believes in something: restoration through education and education through restoration. We work with communities and youth in NYC so they can become invested stewards in their own environment. The estuary belongs to everyone! There are several ways we engage New Yorkers including educational programs and our volunteer and ambassador program. We also have what we call our community scientists through our oyster research station (ORS) programme where local communities can adopt and monitor 18 inch by 8 inch cages filled with oysters to measure oyster growth, mortality and biodiversity.
Even during Covid we’ve had a lot of luck getting 3 to 4 aquaculture students on our eco dock and engaging them, it’s the best way to get them interested. When you have the chance to get out in the field and work with people who are doing this for a living, you get a sense, this is what people are doing and I can do it too. It’s exciting when you get to see it come full circle.
Can you tell us more about your community reefs programme and how you work with the schools across New York city?
The Community Reefs program brings local schools, community members and community groups to the harbors edge. These structures are much larger than our Oyster Research Stations and can be accessed by wading into the water. Community Reefs are welded, steel rebar structures that hold files of oysters off the harbors bottom. This design allows the files to be removed for monitoring above the water surface. We have Community Reefs in Coney Island, Baywater State Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Bush Terminal Park, and Canarsie along Paerdegat Basin.
It's an interesting way to get people who have either zero level of education on oysters, or a lot to be part of something they can track and see where things are going. We also involve community scientists and community groups who can look at these bases and send data on mortality, growth and if there are any other animals living there.
Your goal is to restore one billion oysters on reefs in New York Harbor, how is this coming along?
Our target of restoring one billion oysters is ambitious and we can’t do it without the help of our Billion Oyster Project community of volunteers, ambassadors, community scientists, educators and students.
So far, we have restored 45 million oysters. Last summer was our most successful restoration year to date, we were able to restore 15 million. We’ve been able to make a lot of great connections too because the people we work with want to give back and see New York become a better place. This upcoming year, we are hoping to restore 18 million more oysters.
Learn more about Billion Oyster Project and get involved at billionoysterproject.org.