This post was written by Ocean Conservancy intern Jaclyn Yeary.
After Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast last October, I read an op-ed by Paul Greenberg in the New York Times titled “An Oyster in the Storm” that inspired me. In his piece, he described how oysters can be used to protect the shorelines of our coastal cities while improving the water quality of America’s largest metropolis. The solution to two major issues seemed suddenly so obvious. I needed to learn more.
So I partnered with a friend to produce a short documentary titled “Harbor Heroes” about the importance of oysters to New York City. We interviewed an amazing group of individuals including students from the aquaculture program at the New York Harbor School, Philippe Cousteau and Paul Greenberg himself.
How do oysters help water quality?
The idea behind restoring New York’s oysters is this: oysters grow on top of one another, forming nurseries for baby fish and creating a base structure for reefs. Reefs act as natural surge protectors and reduce the size of waves during big storms. Like other mollusks, oysters are filter-feeders, which means they clean the water column as they eat. If the water quality improves enough, sea grass could grow and create a root network that would prevent the erosion of the shoreline.
The history of the New York City half shell
One of my favorite aspects of the solution presented by Greenberg is that oysters are an important part of New York’s history. Mark Kurlansky’s book, “The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell,” outlines the history of New York City through the growth of the oyster industry.
At one time, half the world’s oysters were found in New York. Liberty Island and Ellis Island were once called “Little” and “Big Oyster Island,” respectively. But as the city grew, more and more people began harvesting them. And with the Industrial Revolution, more and more chemicals were being dumped into the harbor. People began getting sick from eating contaminated shellfish, so they stopped growing oysters. The few that remained died out until the population completely disappeared.
Since the introduction of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the waters surrounding New York have improved. Today, they are clean enough to support oysters again, though it will be a while before anyone actually wants to eat them. Various groups, including the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper and the New York Harbor School have begun planting oysters in the Hudson.
Where are we today?
The plan isn’t perfect, and it isn’t without challenges. Some officials worry poachers will eat oysters from the contaminated water and cause a public health outbreak. Additionally, ocean acidification is an ever-growing threat to shellfish and corals. As the ocean absorbs more carbon, they become more acidic. This is problematic for oysters because the changing chemistry of the ocean means shell-building animals have trouble building the shells necessary for their survival.
But some states are taking action. For instance, Washington has turned oyster beds around the state into ocean acidification monitoring stations. Scientists can collect data on the water’s pH levels around the state and record their effects on the shellfish industry.
In New York City, if this multi-faceted solution is implemented as part of a larger plan to protect and restore New York’s waters, oysters have the potential to positively impact a variety of sectors including the environment, education and local economy.