Oysters Are Making a Comeback in the Polluted Waters Around New York City

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Via The Guardian, written by Edward Helmore:

A coalition of bivalve enthusiasts is trying to revive oyster farming in water that is beset by trash and raw sewage
The oysters in the Hudson River around the Statue of Liberty are some of the plumpest and fastest growing Crassostrea virginica in the whole of New York harbor. Fitting it should be that way, at least in contrast to the East River, between Manhattan and Brooklyn, where untreated effluent is allowed to flow out during storms in what New York authorities describe as a “rain event”.
But even plump “liberty” oysters are inedible, says Peter Malinowski, founder and director of the Billion Oyster Project, a four-year-old program that hopes to restore oysters throughout an estuary that once sustained 220,000 acres of oyster beds, producing enough bivalves to sustain early settlers to Manhattan island. The mollusk population here used to supply half of the world’s harvested oysters.
This bay, nestled in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, is now one of the most unappealing environments for any kind of aquatic life. The city’s treatment facilities are able to process 1bn gallons a day. More than a quarter of an inch of rain and as much as 66m gallons of untreated waste water from all over Brooklyn flushes into the river every 24 hours.
“Same volume as the Empire State Building,” Malinowski offers alarmingly. And not just organic material, which settles on the bottom. “Baby wipes, condoms, dime bags, plastic bags full of dog shit. Yet the water is safe to swim by Environmental Protection Agency standards.”
Malinowski’s sense of outrage is palpable. He lifts a basket of oysters up out of the water close to Brooklyn’s main storm outflow. “If you walked into Central Park one day and you couldn’t go in because it was full of human shit and trash everyone would freak out and it wouldn’t happen again. But because there’s not enough people advocating for the water, so it’s OK to pour sewage into it.”
The 34-year-old environmentalist comes from a family of oystermen on Fisher’s Island (population 236), a fingerling of land wedged between the eastern end of Long Island and Connecticut. It’s his plan – one supported by a variety state and federal bodies as well as New York restaurant owners and chefs – to bring about the revival of the oyster beds.
The plan of action is to collect oyster shells from the city’s restaurants and use them to create reefs for oyster spat – fertilized eggs – to fix one to. Without anything to attach to, the microscopic spat simply fall into the mud and organic material and perish.
The one thing oyster spat love most to attach to is old oyster shells, which New York City restaurants have in abundance. The project runs a service to collect oyster shells from restaurants around the city that are used to help form habitats.
Chef Kerry Heffernan, who opened Eleven Madison Park as executive chef, is a keen supporter of the project. He is now Executive Chef at Grand Banks, a popular oyster bar aboard a fine wooden-hulled oyster schooner, Sherman Zwicker, moored on the east side of Manhattan.
Heffernan grows oysters off the end of his dock at home in Sag Harbor. For him, like many chefs, sustainability and ecological revitalization have become part of a professional passion and personal responsibility. While the New York Harbor oysters are unlikely to be edible in the near future – at least until the city stops releasing untreated effluent into the harbor – the goal currently is habitat rehabilitation and conservation.
“If you’re farming them, every oyster you eat is great for the environment,” says Heffernan. Kelp, too, is great – [it] metabolizes life out of minerals and sunlight. So marine-based plant life is the next big thing for us, incorporating kelp and seaweeds into the American diet.”
Restoring the beds gives other species, from blue crabs to shrimp and anemones, a chance to come back too. Without oysters, New York Harbor’s ecosystem lacks a crucial element. One way to create beds is to use pieces of porcelain that have been recycled from nearly 5,000 toilets from New York City’s public schools.
“If you restore the oyster habitats, that supports all the other animals native to New York Harbor,” says Malinowski. “It’s slowly getting better, and it’s certainly way better than it was 30 years ago and better even than ten years ago.”
New York was not alone in allowing its oyster beds to die out, and it’s not alone in attempting a large scale restoration. Chesapeake Bay in Maryland was once one of the richest producers in the country, until it was allowed to fall into ruin as a result of overfishing and pollution. There are similar projects in several states that border the Gulf of Mexico.
But unlike Chesapeake Bay or Gulf coast restorations, the New York project has no commercial value. But it does have value to the ecosystem.
From Malinkowski’s perspective, the goal to restore the harbor’s ecosystem to the point where it sustains wild oysters fit for consumption is not in itself desirable.
“I don’t think people should eat wild animals,” he offers. “That part of the equation, our relationship to nature, is over. But they have a more important job to do – and that’s filtrating water, providing habitat for other animals and building the ecosystem.”
But the climb back is steep. Chesapeake’s native oyster population is estimated at 1% of historic levels; New York’s is barely a fraction of what Henry Hudson would have seen in 1609 when, entering New York Harbor, he had to navigate a half moon around the reefs.
The relentless exploitation of the oysters meant that by 1906, New Yorkers had eaten every last one. 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. Ironically, it was the construction of a new aqueduct, bringing a copious supply of freshwater from the Catskills, that doomed the oyster.
“The aqueduct bringing freshwater from the Catskills brought as much freshwater as it wanted, so they flushed as many toilets as they wanted and all that went into the rivers,” says Malinowski. “So when they got sick from cholera and typhoid they blamed the oysters, not thinking that they were putting raw sewage on their food supply.”
The passage of the Clean Water Act of 1968 began the process of cleaning up the harbor – a process that may now accelerate as successive city administrations recognize the value of the city’s waterways both for transportation and as part of a modern city’s responsibility to the environment.
In New York’s case, the urgency is underscored by climate change. As Hurricane Sandy in 2012 illustrated, the city is vulnerable, and particularly in low-lying reaches in Brooklyn and Queens. Various projects are being pursued, including islands and tidal barrages.
Staten Island, once rich with oyster habitats and hit hard by Sandy’s storm surge, is to receive a $60m federal grant to construct a 13,000-foot-long oyster reef. This so-called “living breakwater” is designed to integrate live oysters into its surface. Not only will the oysters filtrate the water, but as the breakwaters grow larger, they will provide greater storm protection.
But can oysters begin to help redress the natural balance? The bivalves can clear dirty water and bring back other species; they can also help to engage young people in marine science, as Malinowski hopes to do.
Even as oysters are found non-edible, new uses for them crop up. Such is the potential that the concept of oyster-tecture – the use of oysters as an architectural resource – was developed by landscape architect Kate Orff and presented in a 2010 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
But while oysters help filter water, they do not themselves consume nitrates produced by human effluent or intensive agriculture. They do, however, help consume algae that flourish as a result of over-nitrification in the water column.
Founder Alex Pincus, a keen supporter of the oyster project, speeds the company speedboat to one of the beds in lower Brooklyn. Pincus notes oyster aquaculture is a rapidly evolving business, with the numbers of US growers multiplying and techniques for production becoming more sophisticated.
Further afield, out in Jamaica Bay by John F Kennedy airport, the Billion Oyster team have added nearly 50,000 adult oysters, making it the largest single installation for breeding oysters in the city.
But before the project’s efforts can hope to produce self-sustaining oyster beds, the city will have to do more to clean up its harbor. Oysters may not object to effluent, but it’s an unnerving aspect of New York life that so much of the city’s waste is still dumped into the harbor. (The Clean Water Act only banned such discharge “where possible”.)
Thankfully, it hasn’t rained much recently – the Northeast US has been in drought since June – and while the greenish water doesn’t look too inviting, it is at least still warm.
“When we put the nursery in, the Navy Yard had just found there were no complex organisms living in the space. No crabs, no shrimp, no fish: nothing,” says Malinowski.
“We put in the nursery in 2013 and within a matter of months it had been colonized by all these different animals. Now we get anemones, crabs, anthropods, fish, worms, spongers. And the oysters are growing like crazy.”