Juvenile oysters grow on shells reclaimed from restaurants as part of the Billion Oyster Project in New York City. The project is reestablishing oyster reefs in the New York Harbor to help revitalize the waters.
Photo courtesy of The Billion Oyster Project/CS Monitor
Can oysters clean up New York Harbor?
(The Philippine Star) - April 22, 2019 - 12:00am

A team of high school students, scientists, and volunteers are working together to clean up the New York harbor in the United States. How? By using Oysters.

Started in 2014, the Billion Oyster Project aims to reestablish oyster reefs that used to thrive in the harbor, says Pete Malinowski, executive director of the initiative.

“Through the work of restoring a billion oysters, we hope to reinsert the harbor into the consciousness of New Yorkers,” he says.

Oysters are more than just a popular appetizer. Their reefs provide habitat for a variety of aquatic species, and they break storm surges that could otherwise devastate the coastline. Oysters also help clean the water.

“You don’t lose having oysters. You always gain,” says Gulnihal Ozbay, a researcher at Delaware State University who specializes marine habitat restoration.

Much of the pollution afflicting the harbor today comes from sewage overflows, which occur when heavy rains overwhelm the city’s Combined Sewage Overflow system, spilling wastewater into the harbor.

Sewage contains a lot of nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plants and animals.

But too much nitrogen triggers algae blooms, which suck oxygen out of the water to create so-called dead zones.

The antidote? Oysters, says those behind the initiative. As efficient filter-feeders, oysters remove nitrogen and incorporate it into their shells and tissue. Near oyster reefs, the water is often clearer.

Oysters weren’t completely gone when the Billion Oyster Project began in 2014. But the ones that remained were few and far between, and aren’t thought to have been in many reefs.

That was an important element because oysters are broadcast spawners, which means they release eggs and sperm into the water column where they form larvae.

Those baby oysters have to find something to latch onto – and they prefer shells of adult oysters.

In the Billion Oyster project, those older shells come from restaurants in the city.

Students at the New York Harbor School on Governors Island breed oysters and usher them through their development before planting entire chunks of oysters grown together out into the harbor.

The goal of the project is to have placed one billion oysters into the harbor by 2035. Malinowski says this may not be enough to make a huge dent in fully addressing the problem.

But he says they hope to educate the next generation of New Yorkers about the harbor and to stimulate interest in restoring and protecting it.

“The major benefit, I think, is the involvement of the students in creating a cadre of people who care about the harbor and are going to want to protect it,” says John Waldman, a biologist at Queens College and author of “Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor.” 

“The spirit of the kids and the teachers is palpable,” he adds. “They are just so into this. It’s marvelous to see.”

To Kaya Aras, a senior at the Harbor School, the harbor had long been a place to avoid.

But after working on the project, he sees it in a different light. “Having seen firsthand what the oysters do, I’m hopeful that one day the harbor will come back to what it was during the colonial era.”

The harbor is already cleaner and more vibrant than some might think, says Waldman. Just a few miles from downtown Manhattan, whales have reappeared in recent years. Sonar readings of the Hudson River last summer revealed a 14-foot long sturgeon swimming in its depths.

“[People] just haven’t been exposed to what’s going on there,” he adds. “There is a real lag in terms of the perceptions of the current state of the harbor.”

But, he says, with initiatives such as the Billion Oyster Project, “that tide is turning.”  — Eva Botkin-Kowacki, The Christian Science Monitor (USA)

This article is being published as part of Earth Beats, an international and collaborative initiative gathering 18 news media outlets from around the world to focus on solutions to waste and pollution.

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