One of the planet’s most diverse environments once contained 220,000 acres of oyster reefs. Now decimated, young scuba divers and students from the Billion Oyster Project are working to restore it.

One of the most biologically productive, diverse and dynamic environments on the planet was a natural harbor with 220,000 acres of oyster reefs forming its base, along with thousands of associated species. Some biologists think that half of the world’s oysters lived within this pristine estuary. And when healthy, it sustained local human populations for hundreds of years. However, these majestic oyster reefs were over-harvested, dredged up, covered in silt and landfill, and poisoned by sewage. Now they are part of the New York Harbor we know today. But young scuba divers and other New York City students are working hard on the Billion Oyster Project (BOP). They plan to disperse one billion live oysters around 100 acres of reefs, reclaiming the harbor’s title as the oyster capital of the world.

Why oysters?

Oysters were the keystone species of New York Harbor, upon which the entire ecosystem depended. Their loss had a devastating effect on all local marine life. Their disappearance also destabilized the sea floor. This leaves the shoreline vulnerable to extreme wave damage and prevents the harbor’s estuary from maintaining itself. Billion Oyster Project aims to reverse these effects by re-establishing oyster colonies. These will help restore the marine environment, resulting in cleaner water and greater biodiversity. Additionally, these living oyster-reef breakwaters will buffer neighborhood shorelines. This will create a more resilient New York City, better able to withstand the devastating effects of storms.

Students and divers are bringing back the oysters

Sadly, as a 2011 study published in BioScience reported, the wild oysters in New York Harbor, like those in many other bays around the world, are functionally extinct. The seabed is the darkest of muck or “black mayonnaise,” as the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School (NYHS) students call it. There are some wild oysters, but when they spawn, there’s no place in this black goop for the larvae to adhere. Therefore, they often die. That’s where the heavy lifting for BOP comes in, with NYHS students conducting most of the work.

With career- and technical-education programs in a wide variety of marine-based professions (e.g., marine biology research, ocean engineering, professional diving, etc.), students from NYHS can perform the oyster-restoration work themselves. They cultivate oyster larvae, establish nurseries, design and build mechanisms to house the oysters, pilot the boats, install artificial reefs filled with spat (baby oysters), and conduct research.

Diving to help oysters

The diving aspect of this project is unique to New York, as the NYHS is the only public high school in the United States that offers a Scientific Diver certification through the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. Sophomores begin their dive training with PADI Open Water certification through the NYHS. They perform easier dives in Dutch Springs, Pennsylvania and in Brooklyn. Continuing with Advanced Open Water and Rescue Diver certifications, students soon embrace the more difficult dives of New York Harbor. Their NYHS training culminates with the Scientific Diver certification, as well as additional training in drysuit, tethered and full-facemask diving.

“Learning to dive in New York waters with its fast currents, low visibility and heavy boat traffic creates super-strong divers with incredible confidence and a solid sense of team work,” says Zoë Greenberg, assistant dive safety officer at BOP and professional diving instructor at the NYHS. And tough divers are necessary, because juniors and senior spend their time diving the cold New York City waters in one of the busiest ports in the country, helping establish oyster beds from Governor’s Island in Manhattan to reefs in Brooklyn and Queens.

The results

Oyster restoration in New York Harbor is still experimental. But a variety of artificial reefs have been successfully established by attaching filing cabinet-style cages made of rebar to substrates made of clam shells, oysters and porcelain. BOP has even found two creative ways to produce the materials they so desperately need for the restoration. Instead of adding to landfills, which helped decimate the oyster populations, they’re “recycling porcelain from public school toilets and oyster shells from local restaurants to help build artificial reefs,” Greenberg says.

With up to 20 oysters growing from a single recycled shell and stable substrates on which oysters can thrive, the results are astonishing so far, especially as BOP only officially launched in 2014.

The project is clearly on track to meet its goal of distributing one billion live oysters around 100 acres of reefs by 2035. This will make New York Harbor once again the most productive waterbody in the North Atlantic, and help it reclaim its title as the oyster capital of the world.

Get involved

The decimation of oyster-bed ecosystems around the world and the devastation to shorelines now pummeled by storm damage is appalling. If you want to help, eat oysters local to your area (or leave them off your plate entirely). You may also consider making a 501c3 charitable donation to the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School or the Billion Oyster Project.

If you live or work in New York, both organizations are always looking for help in the areas below.

  • Dive shops and marine businesses: Internships for current students and post-graduates
  • Restaurants: Recycled oyster shells
  • Volunteers: Assistance building artificial reefs, preparing recycled shells and maintaining oyster nurseries
  • Citizen scientists and teachers: Set up and monitor oyster-restoration stations in satellite campuses

Cover photo: A Billion Oyster Project shell curing site for recycled oyster shells in Staten Island. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong.

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