Giving Back

Heroes on the Half Shell: How Oysters Will Save the Planet

by Pavia Rosati
Billion Photo courtesy of Billion Oyster Project.

Oysters! What marvelous little creatures.

Let us count the ways:

  • They’re hard-working: An adult oyster can clean up to 50 gallons of water per day, removing all kinds of pollutants and sewage from waterways.
  • They’re strong: Oysters grow in reefs, forming natural barriers that protect against storm surges, break large waves, and prevent soil erosion. This is especially useful given the increasing frequency of “once in a century” storms.
  • They’re good neighbors: These reefs create homes for hundreds of species of marine life, like seaweed, barnacles, and eels, thereby creating healthy aquatic ecosystems.
  • They’re fluid and independent: Oysters can change genders, typically starting as males and changing to females. Their reproductive organs contain both sperm and eggs, allowing them to self-fertilize their offspring. So efficient!
  • They’re selfless: They never complain when humans squeeze lemon into their eyes and slurp them down by the dozen.
  • They’re pretty: They make pearls!

Oysters are so remarkable, we should have at least a billion of them all over the world.

Billion Oyster Project is doing its part to get one billion bivalves into New York Harbor by 2035.

The education-focused non-profit based on Governor’s Island is off to a strong start, having already crossed the 100 million oyster threshold. Working with local schools (most notably The Harbor School, a high school that trains students for maritime professions), volunteers, scientists, and their own dedicated team, BOP installs and restores reefs, from creation to maturity.

The creation stage includes building gabions (cages) that, when connected, form the skeleton of reefs that oysters and other marine life eventually call home. (I built one of these two-by-four feet cages in a volunteer project with The Wall Street Hotel, one of the companies that supports BOP.) The gabions are filled with oyster, clam, and scallop shells that had been collected from restaurants before being dried, cured, and sanitized. Baby oysters need a hard surface to cling onto, preferably one rich in calcium carbonate, and those shells provide it. Another reason oysters are wonderful: Old shells allow new oysters to thrive! So far, at a rate of about 600 pounds per week, BOP has collected two million pounds of shells from more than 50 restaurants — that’s a ton of “trash” that didn’t become landfill. (Are you a restaurant employee with lots of shells you’re throwing away? Get in touch: BOP wants them.)

BOP also breeds oysters in four shipping containers in Red Hook, feeding them with algae grown in their greenhouse. After a few weeks, when the babies are big enough (usually the size of a pepper flake), they are transferred to gabions, where they will spend the rest of their days. If you consider that one gabion can hold 200,000 oysters, it’s easy to see how the numbers compound.

The Billion Oyster Project is not a crazy environmental dream so much as a return to a healthier past: In pre-Colonial days, before humans harvested them to depletion in less than a century, New York Harbor was home to 200,000 acres of oysters. They’ve been missed. And they have work to do, because New York Harbor has a lot of sewage that needs clearing. (Want to do your bit to help? Here’s an easy one: Avoid excessive water use — showers, laundry, dishwashers — if it’s been raining more than ten minutes, because that’s when the city’s water system reaches capacity and raw sewage is diverted directly into the harbor. Yes, so gross.)  

If you’re wondering whether eventually these mature oysters will end up on a seafood tower in front of you, they won’t. All that pollution makes the oysters inedible. But that’s okay. Those industrious aphrodisiacs are hard at work strengthening New Yorkers' love affair with the harbor.

Feeling Inspired? Get Involved!

Billion Oyster Project is looking for volunteers, community scientists and ambassadors, restaurants, and donors.

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