A short ferry ride from the glass and steel towers of Manhattan is a project aiming to bring back oysters to the Hudson River and New York’s harbour where they existed in profusion in the 17th century but were declared extinct in 1927.
The Billion Oyster Project, an initiative led by the New York Harbor Foundation in collaboration with the New York Harbor School, is based on Governors Island. Traffic flows across the Brooklyn Bridge to the north and the Statue of Liberty, dwarfed by the city, lies immediately to the west. Three helicopters roar overhead on the 800m ferry passage but the island itself is serene, a world apart from the bustle of the city. Since its inception in 2008, the project has become a benchmark for how to involve a city population (young people in particular) in the heritage of its waterways.
When Henry Hudson sailed up what would become his eponymous river in 1609, the harbour supported 350 square miles of oyster reefs. The bivalves, a keystone species, were already enjoyed as a food source by the local Lenape population. Giant beds, said to contain fifty per cent of the world’s oyster population at the time, supported oysters up to a foot long. Sadly, this didn’t last. Over a billion oysters a year were being pulled from the waterways by the early 1900s. By 1910 the oyster was in rapid decline, exacerbated by pollution as raw sewage was pumped into the Hudson. In 1927, the government officially shut down New York’s oyster fisheries and oysters were declared functionally extinct in the harbour.
The tragic story of decline (similar in many respects to the collapse of the native oyster fishery in the Solent, where BLUE operates the Solent Oyster Restoration Project) seemed set to be the epitaph of New York oysters until the Billion Oyster Project set out its ambition – to restore a billion oysters to New York waters by 2035. This oyster species is Crassostrea virginica, often called the Eastern Oyster, and a billion of them would go some way to restoring the once-mighty oyster population of the Hudson. Oysters spend two weeks in the larvae tank, several days in the remote setting tanks before being transferred to nursery trays and garden cages. The final stage is to deploy the spat-on-shell to artificial reefs, constructed to protect the oysters.
The Billion Oyster Project isn’t the only oyster restoration project on the east coast, or indeed in New York, but it has provided the humble and ecologically valuable oyster with the greatest level of public attention to date.
I am met on the water by Matthew Haiken, the Institutional Funding Officer for the New York Harbor Foundation. Located in a water front building on the north side of Governors Island, the Billion Oyster Project is an initiative led by the New York Harbor Foundation in collaboration with the New York Harbor School, a New York City public high school that at any one time supports 440 students in grades nine to 12. Matthew articulates exactly how important oysters were and could be again for the Hudson River. Each oyster can filter 30 to 50 gallons of water each day, he says, helping to clean up the harbor. The reef infrastructure could also protect New York from storms.
Murray Fisher, Executive Director at the New York Harbor Foundation and founder of the Billion Oyster Project, joins the tour with a fellow visitor, Ayana Johnson of Ocean Collectiv. Murray relays the grand vision for the project – a billion oysters restored to the harbor and a million students engaged. He shows us the oyster hatchery where spat collects on shells from 65 partner restaurants around the city. ‘The most useful part of the shell for cultivation is the bottom,’ Murray says, ‘but usually this goes out with the restaurant trash. So we get the tops.’ The shells sit in the sun for six months before being recycled into oyster cultch – material for cultivation of baby oysters. Some of the shells have twenty or more baby oysters attached. Murray describes how they walk using a tiny foot, determining an appropriate area to settle, before grounding down. Ideally this would be an oyster shell, but the Harbor School also employ clam shells, an unlikely habitat has even been created using smashed up toilets.
The hatchery tanks are designed to simulate spring tides, which encourage the oysters to develop gonads and spawn. The team sacrifice an individual oyster per tank to encourage this process. The hatchery is proving highly effective. ‘We have nine individual reefs,’ around the harbor,’ Murray confirms, ‘with over 25 million oysters in the water already.’ He shows us around a campus of abandoned buildings, one of which houses an education centre with learnings from the project. Time is running out to catch the last ferry, but Murray isn’t concerned. ‘We’ll drop you back at the UN in the boat,’ he says.
At the end of the tour we meet several of the students, who have just returned from a trip to lay oysters at one of the reefs. They are a diverse and interesting group, fully engaged with the environmental issues facing the Hudson and the chance to regenerate their waterway through oyster regeneration. As Fisher says, it’s a unique way to engage marginalised city children by literally throwing them in at the deep end. Murray’s vision has resulted in a curriculum where eight in ten Harbor School students graduate. They come from far and wide in the five boroughs, brought together by the chance to learn the way of the harbor.
Sure enough, the oyster boat arrives and we are whisked across the water, passing the yellow bulk of the Staten Island ferry and racing north up the East River. We pull up at the curb of FDR drive, somewhere above East 35th Street. I jump over the fence, almost in front of UNHQ, right back into the furious pace of Manhattan. The boat driver salutes smartly as he pulls away. Governors Island and the Billion Oyster Project are a world apart from New York, but one that is still intimately connected to the island waterways where the Lenape people first enjoyed oysters. In this way, the New York Harbor School provides a vital link, and new opportunities, for the young people of the city.
With great thanks to Matthew Haiken and Murray Fisher of New York Harbor Foundation. You can learn more about the Billion Oyster Project here.