Oyster happy hour in New York City is the happiest hour of them all, but did you know that oysters are oysome beyond their tastetacular, aphrodesiacal, delight-by-the-bite decadence? Like all bivalves, oysters filter the water they live in with superhero efficiency. (I think of them as the earthworms of the ocean, turning trash into eco-enhancing aqua treasure…but more on their magical poop below.) As an underwater community, oysters also provide habitat for marine ecosystems and buffer storm and wave energy, protecting the shoreline.
For several centuries, oysters dominated New York City’s waterways, and the Big Apple was known as one of the oyster capitals of the world. Ellis Island was called Oyster Island before its name changed in 1770. During the mid-19th century, famished fans could head to an “oyster cellar” hub like Canal Street and have all-you-can-eat oysters for six cents.
Good luck finding any hanging ten on the banks of the Hudson or East Rivers these days. Due to pollution, overfishing and more, wild oysters are in crisis. Enter NY/NJ Baykeeper, a non-profit whose mission is to “protect, preserve, and restore the ecological integrity and productivity of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary.”
I had a shell of a good time speaking with Meredith Comi, Oyster Restoration Program Director. She and her team deploy innovative efforts to restore oyster population, including a very cool volunteer oyster gardening program. The New York Times has written about the group’s volunteer day at their 1-acre oyster reef in the South Bronx.
Check out a few highlights from my chat with Meredith below!
Q: How do oysters clean water?
A: “An oyster is an animal so it has a stomach and it has a heart and an anus and different organs. Bivalves — muscles, clams, scallops, they all do this — open up a little bit and the water goes over organs called gills. The gills trap particles that the oyster would like to eat, usually algae and things like that. Anything that the oyster isn’t going to use gets packed into little balls called pseudo feces. The oyster gets what it needs, then these pseudo feces are food for all these other critters that are living on the bottom. At the same time, it’s making the water clearer and cleaner.”
Q: What type of oyster lives in New York’s water, and what’s its history here?
A: “It’s the American Oyster, and it’s the same species up and down the East Coast. It will vary in its taste and shape depending on what kind of water it is grown in. New York Harbor sprung up around the oyster industry. When people started settling here, they always say oysters were the food for everyone – rich, poor. There were so many oysters, everybody was eating them. Instead of hotdog stands, there were oyster stands.”
Q: Why did New York’s oyster population disappear?
A: “We started having issues with the beds in the 1930s, maybe a little before that. In New York, there weren’t any sewer systems and everything went out into the water. The beds started dying and people were getting sick from eating these oysters. There were typhoid breakouts that were actually traced back to oyster beds.
Plus, people were using oyster shells for chicken feed or to make buildings. But oyster larvae need to settle on something hard, they need to settle back on shells. By not putting shells back in the system, we were robbing the larvae of some place to settle. That contributed to the demise as much as the over harvesting.
We also started dredging for bigger channels to accommodate the growing needs of New York Harbor. That ripped up the beds and side-casted silt on them, smothering them. There were not any oysters to be found, and this missing oyster reef was home and refuge to hundreds of other species. Without that reef, those species aren’t there. And when the oyster reef is gone, you don’t have the water as clear or clean.”
Q: New York is notorious for its archaic combined sewer system, in which waste and storm water share a single route to sewage treatment plants. When it floods, raw sewage overflows into communities and waterways. How has this affected oysters?
A: “Basically, oysters are filter feeders so they basically will eat everything, filter everything. Today, you now have this issue that oysters are filtering waste, toxins, metals. That is a big hinderance to our restoration efforts. The oyster doesn’t really discriminate what it eats. It eats everything, or at least everything passes it through its body. Some accumulates in its tissues, some accumulates in its shell. We are just starting to study what gets stored where [in the oyster]. The different agencies are worried because if you eat oysters that have these contaminants in them, especially fecal, you can get very sick.”
Q: What are the challenges we face in restoring the oyster beds?
A: “The whole coastline changed in the harbor. Our job here with New York Harbor and the restoration is more difficult than any of the other estuaries because we don’t have any larvae, we don’t have any substrate, we don’t have any shell. We really have to start from the beginning and grow the oysters ourselves, put the substrate in, figure out ways to deal with this restoration in an urban area. As you head south, in places like Maryland, you just put out a shell bag and hundreds of oysters will find their way to this bag. We don’t have enough oysters in the system to produce larvae like that. In New York we are trying different structures. The problem is that it is so open in a lot of places, if you just put a pile of shell down it will be washed away.”
Q: How can people get involved and contribute to NY/NJ Baykeeper’s efforts to restore New York and New Jersey oysters?
A: “If you go on our site, there are petitions and information on it about CSOs [Combined Sewer Overflows]. We do eco tours and kayak tours as well. We have traditionally run an oyster gardening program in New York and New Jersey, right now it is just in New York. People get a cage of oysters and basically raise them for a year. They collect data for us and send it in. We really get to see what is going on all over the city in different waterways. We have a reef site in the Bronx River right at Soundview Park. It’s this dirty river, there are CSOs everywhere, but the oysters are thriving. We are using community members and groups to come out and help us monitor those reefs. They get to put on waders and come out. It’s dirty but it’s cool.”
Q: Do these efforts have a chance at restoring oyster populations to how it used to be?
A: “Right now, it is doing what we can. I do have to say water quality has improved and we have seen a lot of animals and species come back to the waterways. The problem is water quality. The problem with runoff and the CSOs needs to be addressed. That is what is keeping the water quality so poor; sewage is just allowed to flow into these water ways. Until these agencies start cracking down on that, we are going to be working on small increments, like what we are doing now.”
Want to help save New York’s oyster population? Learn about other ways you can get involved with NY/NJ Baykeeper’s efforts, from volunteering to contacting decision makers, by clicking here!
For more information on New York’s oyster history, check out Emily V. Driscoll‘s informative documentary “Shellshocked: Saving Oysters to Save Ourselves.” Starting with the decadent hey day of New York’s oysters, the film charts the species demise and the efforts to reintroduce them to the city’s surrounding waterways. Here’s the trailer: