“We Built This City.” – The Oysters of New York Harbor

By Lauren Giglio.

How the Billion Oyster Project is Saving the Eastern Oysters of the Atlantic

Let’s take a journey together; you are roaming the streets of New York City, people-watching through the large crowds, listening to the taxis and buses beep as they fly by, the aroma of the hotdog cart surrounds you. It is undeniable how large the architecture is with skyscrapers towering as you stroll down the crowded streets. A clearing appears as you reach the end of the block and…BAM. The Atlantic Ocean. A thought that is generally in the back of tourists and residents mind alike being in a city as grand at New York, but the Atlantic Ocean is what allowed this city to become what we know it as today.

The Atlantic meets the Hudson River to create a nutrient rich estuary right at the base of New York City, allowing for marine life to flourish. Just as the buildings grew in size to create the architecture we know the skyline of New York to be, oyster beds created a city of their own underneath the ocean’s surface. The eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, has been a bountiful staple of the bay since the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609 (the river would later bear his name) staking claim on the substrate and covering about 220,000 acres in oyster reefs. These reefs once created one of the most diverse, biologically productive, and economically beneficial environments on the planet. In addition to creating an underwater city for numerous species, oyster reefs act as natural filters by removing excess nutrients from the water around them.

As the population and infrastructure increased in NYC, the once thriving oyster reefs rapidly decreased, both in population and overall health. The sheer demand for oysters overtook many of the reefs-fresh oyster carts were once as ubiquitous as the hotdog carts you would see on each street corner today. In addition to an incredible demand for the popular bivalve which depleted much of the population, the water quality of NY Harbor was steadily declining due to massive amounts of waste being dumped into the river. By 1906, the once abundant oyster population had nearly been wiped out completely. There was little done to salvage this ecological disaster until 1972 when the Clean Water Act was put into place, which established regulations on pollutant discharge into water bodies like the Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean. It was this movement that sparked a positive change for many aquatic species to finally have a chance at restoration.

In 2008, the Billion Oyster Project was created with the goal of continuing the regrowth of New York’s oyster population through reef reconstruction and public education. But with a population struggling to succeed and in such ecological disarray, they needed to have a true goal in mind to see some real results. The name depicts the goal; successfully spawn and relocate one billion oysters throughout 100 acres in the North Atlantic by the year 2035.

With the seemingly daunting task of completely rebuilding the oyster population of the North Atlantic, the BOP would require all hands on deck to complete their goal on time. Not to worry, 9,000 volunteers have already dedicated their time to the cause that will eventually completely rebuild the waters of NYC. In addition to these crucial volunteers, the BOP has involved 70 high schools in this mission, including their own flagship school (the New York Harbor School), with over 6,000 students who are involved in reef reconstruction, oyster cultivation, research, and public outreach.

In just a few short years, this incredible project has managed 3 oyster nurseries in New York Harbor and created/maintained 12 oyster reefs throughout the New York’s coastline – the success of these efforts led to over 28 million oysters being replanted in this region of the Northern Atlantic. These thriving oysters have already filtered nearly 20 trillion gallons of New York Harbor’s water in addition to removing 72 thousand pounds of Nitrogen from the harbor, biological successes that will continue to turn the health of the harbor around for the better.

But the fight is far from over! While the BOP has done incredible work to restore these reefs and the oysters have done their part in cleaning up the water quality, scientists from the BOP strongly discourage the harvesting of oysters directly from the harbor for many more years – the decades of pollutants dumped into the Hudson River and NY Harbor have yet to be completely removed. This will only allow for these reefs to continue to thrive and do their natural job of water filtration without the threat of over-harvesting.

What can you do to help the Billion Oyster Project and the eastern oyster population of the Northern Atlantic? Talk about it! New York City was centered on the harvesting, selling, and eating oysters since the 1600’s – now the Atlantic Ocean seems to be removed from NYC resident’s minds. The more we discuss and appreciate what this incredible species has done for the city, the more empathy and awareness there will be for the Atlantic as a whole. After all, the eastern oysters of the Atlantic built this city. We should return the favor and rebuild theirs.

Interested in donating to the Billion Oyster Project?  https://billionoysterproject.org/donate/

Follow them on their journey to rebuilding the oyster population of the Northern Atlantic:



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