New York seeks to claw back ‘Big Oys­ter’ past

China Daily (Canada) - - WORLD -

NEW YORK — One sunny morn­ing in New York, a dozen bi­ol­o­gists and vol­un­teers stand in knee-deep wa­ter, chuck­ing net sacks of oys­ter shells down a hu­man chain, be­fore plant­ing them in con­tain­ers on the riverbed.

Why? To build an oys­ter reef.

The goal? To re­store a bil­lion oys­ters by 2035 to the largest city in the United States — not as a del­i­cacy for the din­ner ta­ble but in an en­vi­ron­men­tal bid to clean up its no­to­ri­ously filthy har­bor wa­ter and gen­er­ate greater bio­di­ver­sity.

Dressed in waders, the group bat­tles un­der the hot morn­ing sun on the Brook­lyn shore­line, the Statue of Lib­erty and iconic sky­scrapers of New York’s Fi­nan­cial Dis­trict ris­ing up on the hori­zon.

The net sacks con­tain empty oys­ter shells, or ones that have been as­sid­u­ously cleaned or “cured” — then in­serted with oys­ter lar­vae — and placed into con­tain­ers planted on the seabed that will form a reef.

“This was the Big Oys­ter be­fore it was the Big Ap­ple,” jokes Mike McCann, an ur­ban ma­rine ecol­o­gist with the non­profit group The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy.

“That’s a his­tory that has been for­got­ten by a lot of New York­ers and this project brings it back,” said McCann, 32.

When English ex­plorer Henry Hud­son sailed into New York har­bor in 1609, he had to nav­i­gate 89,000 hectares of oys­ter reefs that fed Le­nape In­di­ans for gen­er­a­tions, writes Mark Kurlan­sky in his 2006 book The Big Oys­ter.

“Oys­ters are ecosys­tem en­gi­neers and they build (a) three-di­men­sional reef habi­tat,” ex­plains Katie Mosher, restora­tion man­ager of the Bil­lion Oys­ter Project, or BOP, which was set up in 2014.

“It’s full of dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes of oys­ters that other species love to hunt in and live in and to search for prey.”

Oys­ters also fil­ter and clean the wa­ter when they breathe, mak­ing it clearer. This en­ables light to pen­e­trate more eas­ily to the bot­tom and al­lows more plants to grow on the seabed.

The mol­lusks also re­cy­cle nu­tri­ents and ni­tro­gen, and can even mit­i­gate the en­ergy of large waves, re­duc­ing flood­ing and pre­vent­ing ero­sion dur­ing storms or hur­ri­canes.

But New York’s orig­i­nal oys­ter pop­u­la­tion was al­most ex­tinct by the dawn of the 20th cen­tury, a vic­tim of over­fish­ing, in­dus­trial age pol­lu­tion and sewage.

In just four years, the BOP has al­ready cre­ated 28 mil­lion oys­ters, es­ti­mat­ing that the har­bor wa­ters have never been bet­ter in 150 years.

The reefs have also fu­eled a growth in wild oys­ters. Every so of­ten a whop­per is found, such as one mea­sur­ing 20 cen­time­ters in Au­gust — the largest known oys­ter in the city in a cen­tury — on Pier 40, in the Hud­son River at Green­wich Vil­lage.

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