Restoring Oysters to Protect Us From the Next Superstorm Sandy

Encore: September 03, 2014

MetroFocus’ Rick Karr reports from the mouth of the Bronx River, where groups like New York-New Jersey Baykeeper are working to restore oyster populations.

Just before 7 a.m. on a summer morning is pretty much the perfect time to get out into the water – and gather some oysters.

But these oysters, gathered from the mouth of the Bronx River, are not for dinner. They’re for science. Allison Fitzgerald, from the environmental group New York-New Jersey Baykeeper, says she and other marine biologists have been interested in these oysters for about a decade.

“Back in 2004, the Parks Department started to notice, as you see here on the tires and stuff, all these natural oysters here. We didn’t put any of these here, they just happened to be here,” Fitzgerald said.

Even with all the pollutants in the water and all of the sewage overflows that goes into the water when there’s a big rain storm – right in the shadow of Laguardia airport and Huntspoint Market – scientists wanted to find out how oysters are surviving here and to see if it was possible to get more of them to survive.

Fitzgerald and a group of volunteers came out to check the artificial oyster beds environmental groups set up last year and find out how many of the baby oysters that had been planted had survived and reproduced. The theory is that if an oyster bed can make it here at the mouth of the Bronx River, it can make it anywhere. And the waters around New York could use more oysters.

“Oysters are able to filter the water, so if there’s any particulates in it, they will remove that. They’re also able to harbor pollutants,” Fitzgerald said. Oysters also clump together when a bed thrives, and Fitzgerald says that’s the key to restoring the marine environment.

“They provide a substrate for other organisms,” Fitzgerald told Karr. “So they build up this 3-D reef, like a coral reef, and then the fish swim through, and the worms, and the crabs, and everybody creates this whole, healthy ecosystem, that, if the oyster reef wasn’t here, would be just a vast mud flat which a lot of things can’t grow on.”

It’s one of several projects aimed at bringing more oysters to the Metro area. But even the most ambitious one, which hopes to plant a billion of them in and around New York Bay, won’t come close to restoring how many used to be here.

“New York was thought to be the oyster capital of the world. There were 350 square miles of oyster reefs and up to six billion, maybe even nine billion oysters were in the harbor,” said Emily Driscoll, a documentarian whose film Shellshocked looks at efforts to bring oysters back to New York. She says a thriving population of oysters could help New York’s shoreline.

“We saw what happened during Hurricane Sandy, we’re susceptible to flooding. So if we have some oyster reefs we have a little protection. Oyster reefs can diminish some of that wave energy,” she said.

The volunteers in the Bronx included architects from SCAPE, the firm that’s planning an artificial oyster reef along the shore of Staten Island. Allison Fitzgerald of New York-New Jersey Baykeeper says the project at the mouth of the Bronx River gives volunteers an opportunity to feel connected to the water that surrounds most of the city.

“I love the idea of having all these college students and volunteers come out here and showing them why I’m so excited to be here,” she said. “This is, like, ‘Get in the water! Get the waders on! See what the actual reef looks like, work alongside the actual scientists, and get out here and do some good work.'”

Fitzgerald says we’ll never be able to fully restore the waters around New York to the way they were when there were billions of oysters in them. But it’ll be a step in the right direction if more New Yorkers come down to the water for a perspective on how the urban environment fits into the natural one.

“You’re right by Hunts Point, you’re right by LaGuardia, you’re right by Riker’s Island. You’re in the South Bronx — and it’s beautiful!” she said. “There’s egrets on the shore, there’s crabs out there, there’s oysters. There’s mud. It’s a great place to be. We have a lot of fun.”

Kate Orff, a landscape architect and founder of the company SCAPE, joined MetroFocus‘ Jack Ford to follow up on other local resiliency initiatives involving oysters.

SCAPE was one of the winners of the federal government’s Rebuild by Design competition, an initiative by President Obama’s HUD Sandy Taskforce to develop innovative rebuilding solutions following Superstorm Sandy. The SCAPE team worked with collaborators such as Parsons Brinckerhoff and New York Harbor School to design a system of traditional breakwaters coupled with oysters, a thought line that SCAPE has been developing since 2008 and 2009.  The State of New York will receive $60 million to implement SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters proposal.

“The idea is, we’ve modified a traditional break water to have what we’re calling reef streets for fish habitats, for fin fish, and were also seeding the breakwater itself with oysters…to really create a kind of a thick 3D, biodiverse matrix that can, from an engineering stand point, stop and reduce wave action, but also from a biological stand point expand tremendously the biodiversity in our harbor,” Orff told Ford.

Oysters are an essential part of SCAPE’s plan, not only for their environmental benefits, but also due to their long historical association with New York.

“We were to some degree built on the backs of oyster shells and built – literally our civilization has oyster shells underneath it…obviously, since then, the water has become more polluted…but oysters I think are a key part of our project in that they are a window into our future,” Orff said. “They are sort of engineering collaborators or engineering partners in that they filter the water, they agglomerate to form reefs…and to me they’re almost like the canary in the coal mine if you will, but for water quality for the future of the harbor.”

Oysters may have been an important part of New York’s past, but with SCAPE’s involvement in building living breakwaters, oysters will re-emerge as an important part of New York’s future.

“I think what we’ve really done is pull together the concept of ecological restoration and the concept of resiliency and planning for coastal protection, and really pull these two themes together, investigate them, tested them in scientific models, and advanced a project that I think is going to be a big win for the scientific community, for the folks in Staten Island, and for harbor restoration.

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