In the wake of a bizarre vandalism of our oyster cages (tied to a pier in East River State Park) and resulting tragic loss of these baby oysters, Lena & Lena ventured out to the New York Harbor School and its affiliated Billion Oyster Project (BOP) Initiative on Governors Island with the goal of replenishing HII’s oyster stock.
On the ferry over, we mused at not knowing how many oysters we needed or how to protect our new oysters, since there are so few now in the Harbor. Which is a far cry away from the NYC Harbor’s original state where you couldn't throw an oyster without hitting an oyster: according to some estimates, New York Harbor was home to half the
world’s oysters, and Ellis and Liberty Islands were once known
as Little Oyster and Great Oyster Island.
The Billion Oyster Project (BOP) is an “ecosystem restoration and education project aimed at restoring one billion live oysters to New York Harbor and engaging hundreds of thousands of school children”, and is housed within the Urban Assembly - New York Harbor School. The school was established in 2003 and has worked to re-establish oysters in the harbor for the past 6 years. The BOP was established to fast-track the reintroduction of oysters into New York City waters. To date, the BOP is responsible for 11.5 million oysters and ~10.9 trillion gallons of water filtered in the Harbor (so many gallons!).
Once we arrived, Sam Janis, Restoration Program Manager at the Harbor School, directed us out to a small pier just past the building. After we snapped on our life vests, Jeremy Esposito, the Hatchery Manager, invited us down to count out our oysters. We admitted knowing almost nothing about oysters, but were surprised to learn that we wanted around five hundred.
Emma, a summer intern, very patiently explained to us that each shell often has multiple smaller oysters living on it. Most of the big shells on which the small ones grow are donated by restaurants around the city, then left out in the sun for 6 months to ‘cure,’ killing the bacteria and anything else that might interfere with new oyster growth.
She showed us how to distinguish between the living oysters and the...not living. Healthy oysters grow a fan-like shell out from a central, shiny drop-shaped core; dead/dying oysters do not have this growing shell, have transparent centers, and release a bit of water when pressed. Oysters are filter feeders, and thus draw in and expel water, acquiring the nutrients they need while also cleaning the water.
We also asked about the squidgy organisms that had not only adhered to some of the oysters but almost clogged the holes of the trays in which the oysters live. Jeremy explained that they are sea squirts (aka tunicates), and make the oysters’ lives quite difficult, cutting them off from the freely circulating water outside. They are an invasive species and take just a few weeks to clog an oyster tray. Lena & I established that removing sea squirts periodically would be a beneficial bit of maintenance for our new oyster crop (but could also double as makeshift squirt guns).
Once we had counted out 500 oysters (four hundred and ninety-eight, four hundred and ninety-niiiiine), Emma helped us get them into plastic bags (Junior’s Famous Oyster Cheesecake?) to transport them back to East River State Park.
We thanked everyone and headed for the ferry. Upon our return, Park Staff Victor Acosta (The same Victor who showed us the finer points of not getting your fishing line stuck in the East River; tip: don’t) helped us retrieve the old cages, one of which had been seriously vandalized, with the entire top flap missing, and dented with a huge rock someone had placed inside. If the guilty party is reading this: we hope that this will not happen again!!
After distributing the oysters into the two cages, we put one back where their predecessors had been, but placed the second cage in a safer spot.
We’re extremely grateful to the New York Harbor School and the Billion Oyster Project for giving us a second (third?) chance to do our oysters right, and for all their amazing work on reintroducing oysters into our ecosystem. And maybe - someday - New York Harbor will once again teem with oysters and other marine wildlife.