Can the Billion Oyster Project make New York City the oyster capital of the world once again?

A tenth of the way to a billion oysters

May 20, 2022 Mary Frost, Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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New York Harbor was once filled with billions of oysters, providing a feast for the native Lenape people — and then the Dutch, the English and New Yorkers of all stripes. Some biologists estimate that the harbor once contained half of the world’s oysters, according to New York Public Library.

Writers from colonial times routinely describe oysters “the size of dinner plates” in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. The delicious bivalves were sold from street stands, taverns and restaurants. An oyster-fry cook at Downtown Brooklyn’s Gage & Tollner restaurant, which opened in 1879, was said to have shucked sixty-six million oysters in his forty-nine-year career, according to the New Yorker.

It all came crashing down around 1900, due to overfishing, dredging and pollution from the raw, untreated sewage the city dumped into the harbor. One by one, the New York City Health Department closed the remaining oyster beds, and the city’s time as the oyster capital of the world was over.

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Helene Hetrick, director of communications for the Billion Oyster Project,
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Bringing them back

On Governors Island, a short ferry ride from Brooklyn’s Pier 6, mountains of oyster shells rise into the air. These shells are curing in preparation for their role as the new homes for millions of baby oysters.

“It took less than 100 years to wipe out the oysters in New York Harbor. So the Billion Oyster Project is an effort to revive what used to be here,” Helene Hetrick, director of communications at the organization, told the Brooklyn Eagle.

The nonprofit is getting ready to introduce their 100 millionth oyster to the harbor this year. It’s taken six years to get to this point. “It’s a tenth of the way to our goal of a billion oysters,” Hetrick said. “We are hoping to get to the point where we are restoring 100 million oysters per year.”

Calcium-rich oyster shells collected from New York City restaurants attract baby oysters and other life forms.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Oysters, like other bivalves including clams and mussels, bring enormous benefits to the water, Hetrick said. “When oysters eat they are bringing water into their body and are dispelling waste. So they are clearing the water of excess nitrogen — which causes algae blooms — and other pollutants that we know are harmful.” An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, she said.

Oysters also have the ability to create reef habitat, she said. “We often see crabs, fish, eels and different seahorses in the harbor, and all of them are attracted to the clean water and the structure of oyster reefs.”

As an added benefit, “The hope is that over time and as sea levels rise, those reef structures will actually be able to protect us from storm surge from the stronger storms that are happening here and elsewhere,” Hetrick said.

This scallop shell was mixed in with the oyster shells curing on Governors Island as part of the Billion Oyster Project.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Restaurants donate shells to the organization

Thousands of pounds of oyster shells have been donated to the Billion Oyster Project by more than 50 restaurant partners in New York City, Hetrick said. The Lobster Place, which is a seafood distributor, collects those shells three times a week. Talisker Whiskey funds the collection program.

The oysters that people eat at local restaurants do not come from the harbor, Hetrick said. “If somebody eats at one of the restaurants, they can feel good about eating those oysters because they’re helping to rejuvenate the oysters in New York Harbor.

“The reason we are collecting shells is that oysters need a hard surface to land on in order to grow their own shell and become adult oysters,” Hetrick said. The shells sit outside for about a year to cure, “which means they’re cleared of any pathogens or bacteria that we don’t want to reintroduce to the waterways. Then we clean those shells, we put them into an enclosed structure, and put that structure into harbor water inside tanks. From there, we add oyster larvae — these are little oysters that are free swimming at that point in their lives, and they settle on to the shell, and that’s where they will live out their lives.”

In nature, oyster larvae settle onto empty shells or onto living oysters, which is how they build reefs, she said. “Then the little ones build their own shells.”

Oyster shells collected from more than 50 New York City restaurants will eventually become home to baby oysters.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Education is key

The Billion Oyster Project works with more than 100 city schools, but their relationship with Urban Assembly New York Harbor School is fundamental. The Harbor School is a public high school which moved to Governors Island in 2010 from Bushwick. The Billion Oyster Project was founded by Murray Fisher, who was the founder of the Harbor School, and Pete Malinowski, former Harbor School aquaculture instructor.

Harbor School has a maritime focus, and the Billion Oyster Project supplies the school’s Career and Technical Education programs. These include aquaculture, marine biology, professional scuba diving, vessel operations, ocean engineering and other areas.

Jaylen and Anna, juniors at the Harbor School, showed Eagle reporters a large aquarium filled with marine life. “This tank is called a recirculating aquaculture system,” Jaylen said. “We take care of the organisms, make sure the tank is functioning well, things like that.” Anna said their tank contained a variety of fish, along with starfish, snails, shrimp and oyster spat, which is what baby oysters are called after they attach to a surface.

From left: Jaylen and Anna, juniors at the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, supervise a large tank, called a recirculating aquaculture system, filled with marine life.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Jaylen and Anna participate in the New York Harbor SEALs (Sea, Air, and Land) afterschool program. Mauricio González, founder of the SEALs, is the founder and director of the Marine Biology Research Program at the Harbor School.

“I wanted to be a marine biologist and SEALs, as an extension of that, was really helpful because we learned a lot of things science-related,” Jaylen said. “I’ve been looking at different marine biology programs that different colleges offer.” He added that a graduate of the Harbor School “could choose to go straight into the field if you wanted.”

SEALs have been cleaning and analyzing the marine debris from the rip rap (piles of stones) surrounding Governors Island. “We go out collecting and [sorting] what we find, and then we take it back into the lab, count all that and analyze what washes up,”  Anna said.

Mauricio González, founder of the New York Harbor SEALs, supervises students as they dig out debris from the rip rap surrounding Governors Island.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Field work out on the rip rap

On Wednesday, under the eye of González, the SEALs donned safety equipment donated by Con Edison before climbing over a fence onto the rocks. There they used long tools to gather what had washed up, prying out items that had wedged into the rip rap’s deep crevices.

“We sort and classify all the debris and we turn it into data,” said student Arlo. “It all goes into our data sheets.”

A lot of weird things have washed up into the rocks, Arlo said. “We found a spice jar full of sage and it had a note written in Arabic inside of it … We think it was an obituary notice.”

The work done by the students will go a long way towards making the harbor cleaner in the future, Hetrick said. “All the work that we are doing as a small organization would only be temporary if we don’t educate the next generation to help us continue the work,” she said.

Learn more about the Billion Oyster Project at billionoysterproject.org

A SEALs member prepares to climb out onto the rip rap surrounding Governors Island.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

 

SEALs members buckle on their safety equipment before climbing out onto the rip rap.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

 

Mauricio González, founder of the New York Harbor SEALs, supervises students as they climb over the fence and onto the rip rap to collect debris.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

 

Members of the New York Harbor SEALs collect debris on the rip rap surrounding Governors Island.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

 

SEALs members sort and track the debris their fellow students have collected from the rip rap surrounding Governors Island.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

 

These oysters have been sorted into males and females at the Billion Oyster Project’s hatchery.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

 

Oysters eat different types of algae at different stages in their lives, as seen in these flasks at the Billion Oyster Project’s hatchery.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

 

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