I’m not a picky eater. I cheerfully tried greenland shark in Iceland, pig’s foot soup in Korea, and tongue tacos in Santa Barbara. But no matter how hard I’ve tried, I never developed a taste for oysters. Which is a shame, because I grew up on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, where oysters are plentiful and, according to oyster aficionados, delicious. That doesn’t mean I don’t have an appreciation for the bivalves, though—beyond their popularity as a delicacy, they play an important role in the ecosystem, one which more groups are trying to take advantage of.
When Henry Hudson entered New York Harbor in 1609, he had to navigate around 220,000 oyster beds. The thriving river supported a diverse ecosystem, and oysters helped sustain the local Native Americans and early settlers. But as the population increased, so did the appetite for oysters and the amount of waste being discharged into the harbor. Almost 100 years ago, the last commercial oyster bed closed. In the intervening decades, the water quality and biodiversity of the water around New York City also declined.
One group, Salon reports, hopes that bringing back the oyster can help. The Billion Oyster Project (BOP) collects oyster shells from restaurants around New York City to create reefs for fertilized oyster eggs, or spat, to attach to. Without the shells, the spat would fall into the mud and organic material on the harbor floor and die. And although foodies and restaurateurs may be most excited by the prospect of local oysters for New York restaurants, the primary goal right now is to improve water quality. Due to the high levels of pollution in the waters around New York, the oysters BOP is working with are not edible. But according to a 2016 article in The Guardian, BOP’s oyster reefs not only filter the water; they’re also helping other species like blue crabs, shrimp, anemones, and fish return to the harbor as well. And while oysters don’t consume the nitrates from human waste and agricultural runoff that we worry so much about in the stormwater industry, they do eat the algae that blooms in over-nitrated waters.
To date, BOP has restored 26 million oysters to the harbor and hopes to have 1 billion oysters installed in 100 acres of reef around the harbor by 2035. Much like New York-based BOP, the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance also hopes to utilize oysters’ water-cleaning abilities, but with an even loftier goal—10 billion oysters by 2025.
Cleaning and filtering sea water is not all oysters can do. Living Breakwaters is a plan to build concrete-reinforced oyster reefs off Staten Island, which was particularly battered by Hurricane Sandy. The reefs will help slow and disperse waves and water in the event of future storms and rising ocean levels, protecting the coastline and the people who live there. Because the Living Breakwaters will be oyster-based rather than the more traditional all-cement style, they will also provide habitat for marine wildlife, reduce coastal erosion, and (of course) help improve water quality.
While others may be disappointed that the oysters in these projects won’t be ending up on our plates, I can’t say I’m upset. My favorite way to enjoy oysters? In the ocean, as a vital part of a healthy marine ecosystem.
Let us know about any other non-traditional stormwater and water-quality projects that you’ve heard of or are working on in the comments!