A second chance for ecosystem engineers

Photo courtesy of Katie Orlinsky, @KatieOrlinsky.

It can be hard to picture New York Harbor as a thriving home for oyster reefs, but back in the early 1600s the bottom of the Harbor was covered in them. New York was known for oysters, like Maine is for lobsters, until overharvesting, pollution and dredging virtually wiped out the natural population. By 1906, the oysters were gone and the water was uninhabitable.

This historic evidence of oysters in the Harbor — combined with a passion for education — is the driving force behind the Billion Oyster Project (BOP). Inspired by oysters’ reputation as “Ecosystem Engineers” (an adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day), we are resolved to restore oyster reefs to one of the country’s busiest ports — and to do so alongside students. BOP grew out of the New York Harbor School, which is a public high school on Governors Island that prepares students for careers on the water. So far, the Billion Oyster Project has worked with dozens of local partners to restore 28 million oysters, and to engage 6,000+ students, and more than 9,000 volunteers.

Sizable oyster populations are beginning to thrive near public parks in the Bronx River and New York Harbor and in the deeper waters of the Hudson. Some of the most exciting developments are happening in some of the most compromised tributaries of NY Harbor where we are seeing wild oysters slowly begin to repopulate naturally now that larvae is more abundant. These developing populations really need our help now, which is why we direct a large amount of time and energy towards creating reef habitat that will encourage oysters to settle down in places where we think they’ll have the best chance at building sustainable reefs.

We credit the decades-long commitment of scientists, educators, restoration practitioners, and oyster farmers from coastal cities all over the US with helping us understand the challenges that we need to overcome as a region in order to restore shellfish habitat. Each new partnership, like the one we’ve found in Restore America’s Estuaries, gets the Billion Oyster Project one step closer to one billion restored oysters by 2035. BOP is also pleased to be partnering with Pew to advance policy related to oyster restoration in New York waters. 

On one hand, solidarity among local leaders, corporations, non-profits, and volunteers will help us pave the way for restored habitats. On the other, the environmental stewardship of today’s students will help ensure that we protect newfound biodiversity once we reach one billion oysters!

Katie Mosher is the director of restoration at Billion Oyster Project.

Billion Oyster Project is a member of Restore America’s Estuaries’ Affiliate Member Program. Learn more and join this network today »