City of Water Day: Special Highlights

Interview with Dr. Anna Weiss, Community Science Program manager at Billion Oyster Project, and her team

July 19, 2023 Lucien Clough
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EAGLE: Could you give a brief overview of activities the Billion Oyster Project was running for City of Water Day?

WEISS: Yes! We were out in Domino Park showing off our oysters that came from North 1st Street, from our oyster research cages. These oysters are really great for people to be able to handle because a lot of people have never seen a live oyster before. Not only do they get to see the oysters, but they also get to see the critters that live on the oysters, the algae, the smaller things like isopods, that you don’t really think about. So they’re getting an opportunity to hold and handle things that you can only imagine, that are under the surface.

EAGLE: Right, and these were from a collecting sight from around here — that’s one of many right?

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WEISS: Correct. One of about 50 sites from our Oyster Research stations.

EAGLE: I see. And, what do you think the value is for people to see up close the things that are going on all around our shore?

WEISS: When I was growing up, around here, the water was always dark and gray and gross. I was not aware of the things living under the surface. I think it’s really valuable for people to be able to see that and understand how much life there is and how colorful and beautiful it is. For example, one of the things we talk about is how oysters are good at filtering water. In order to eat, they take the water in, get all the stuff out, and then push the clean water back out. So they’re literally able to clear up the harbor water for us. They absorb pollutants, so I hope people see that the oysters aren’t just about food, but that they’re able to help us clean the water.

EAGLE: I read that one oyster can clean 50 gallons a day. Is that right?

WEISS: That’s right. A whole bathtub — and that’s one adult oyster. Every day. So one billion oysters can filter out the whole harbor in just three days.

EAGLE: Wow. How many oysters are there right now in the harbor?

WEISS: We’ve placed 120 million so far.

EAGLE: So, these oysters are not for human consumption, right?

WEISS: Correct. Our billion oyster goal is for cleaner water and boosing a growth of more microorganisms that use oyster shells as, basically, a reef. If you eat oysters — and this is important — you should eat them from a controlled environmental farm system. When you go to a restaurant, that’s what you’re getting. The restaurants donate their used oyster shells to us, because those shells are still alive and function to help create a new environment in the water.

EAGLE: So your goal is a billion, and you’ve got 120 million. That’s a long way to go!

WEISS: Yes, we’re exponentially working up to it. It was slower in the beginning, but now we’re placing around 100 million a year.

EAGLE: So, Asly, let me ask you: where are your oysters being sourced?

ASLY VENTURA: We have a hatchery on Governors Island that we just expanded to Red Hook. But, in our nursery on Governors Island, we have our adult oysters that we keep breeding over and over again, which is how we get some of our larvae that goes in donated shells. But most of it does come from agriculture, hatcheries that sell them commercially but maybe also for agriculture as well. So we’ll usually order them from another hatchery.

EAGLE: Awesome, so the whole project is around getting the oysters back into the harbor, so can you give me the three bullet points on why we want them back? We already went over filtration, but why else? Brenda, can you answer that?

BRENDA GENARO: They also bring a lot of biodiversity to the region. As you’re putting down oysters, more organisms come, like blue crabs and fish.

WEISS: One thing to remember about oysters: if you think of coral reefs, they grow on top of one another and they make all of these nooks and crannies. They become these underwater apartment buildings, where fish and crabs and all these other good things will live and lay their eggs there and bring biodiversity back to the harbor.

VENTURA: They also minimize wave impact. Since they grow all around the shore, they can scatter the waves that come, which means less flooding for the city, which is really helpful for recovering from big storms like Sandy.

EAGLE: Like a natural floodwall.

WEISS: Right!

EAGLE: So how can New Yorkers get involved in recycling oysters, and also getting involved with our waterways and ecosystems?

WEISS: Oh, yes. It’s really important for New Yorkers to go out because, we have 520 miles of waterfront, and there’s a lot of ways to get involved. If you want to get involved with Billion Oyster Project, there are lots of volunteer events, helping us clean shells or fabricate reef structures, or helping us monitor the oysters, so you can become a community scientist. But generally going out to the water and learning to love it is great. Once you have that love and passion, you’re going to want to go out and advocate, and ask for cleaner water, and ask for solutions, and become involved at that level. So going out and finding a favorite body of water and passion for the waterfront is important. 

VENTURA: And, staying informed, too! Once you get out and realize how much life is in the water, you want to get involved. Especially, because there’s a direct impact for us. 

WEISS: We also have our community water testing program, which is really cool. There are 87 sites in the five boroughs and parts of New Jersey, where community members can go out and collect a little sample of water and bring it back to the lab and test it for bacteria or poop in the water. This is really important because we want New Yorkers to be able to access the shoreline, and if its too dirty you cannot enjoy it. And, so what we’re doing is filling a gap. The city and the state aren’t necessarily testing these shorelines, but we are. So we’re able to tell people if the water is safe enough for swimming and boating. Because the water is really clean, you can actually swim in the harbor, it won’t make your legs fall off or get a third eye. A lot of places are safe to swim because we’re testing them. This lab is where we do 20 odd samples each week, and we let people know via newsletter.

EAGLE: Wow, that’s really cool!

WEISS: Yes, it is!


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