Before New York had pizza—or even bagels—we had oysters: vast, craggy bivalve beds covering more than 220,000 acres of New York Harbor and harvested by the million.

Fresh oysters were once a staple on menus across the city, from high end establishments to street vendors. As author Mark Kurlansky puts it, “This was what New York was to the world—a great oceangoing port where people ate succulent local oysters from their harbor.”

The trillions of oysters deep in New York’s waters provided massive ecological benefits, too, including continuous water filtration, wave mitigation, and habitat for thousands of marine species.

By the late 1800s though, overharvesting had decimated the oyster population. Subsequent pollution of the harbor with sewage, industrial waste, and storm runoff, put an end to any remaining oyster farming efforts.

Today, finding an oyster in New York Harbor waters is about as rare as, well, finding a pearl in your halfshell. But all that could change if New York City’s public school students have anything to do with it.

A Historic Project Takes Launch

Photo credit: Carlo Buscemi Imagery

Last Wednesday marked the official, if rainy, launch of the Billion Oyster Program, a large-scale plan to restore one billion live oysters to New York Harbor in order to clean and revitalize these historic waters.

The project is housed on Governor’s Island at the Marine Affairs, Science, and Technology Center, a newly-renovated waterfront education hub, and will be led by students and educators at the New York Harbor School.

The New York Harbor School is a public high school with a focus on maritime education. Founded in 2003, the Harbor School relocated to Governor’s Island in 2010; prior to that the school was located in landlocked Bushwick, Brooklyn. In addition to a standard college preparatory curriculum, students also learn about the ecology and economy of their local marine environment.

Learning the Life Cycle

A detailed tour of the MAST center revealed an ambitious, multi-stage program off to a promising start. The first floor of the center houses a white-tiled wet lab ringed with burbling aquariums and towering tubes of swirling green goo (algae, an oyster’s favorite food). It is here that each of the billion oysters will begin their life, and here, that Harbor School students learn the basics of oyster care, reproduction, and growth.

Photo credit: Emily Manley via NYER
Photo credit: Emily Manley via NYER

Using two populations of adult oysters—one commercial variety brought in from Fishers Island Oyster Farm and another, more hearty stock scrounged from the mouth of the Bronx River—students breed the bivalves and care for the larvae.

When the tiny oysters grow a bit larger—a phase called “spat-on-shell”—they settle onto old oyster shells (diverted from restaurant waste and cured in the sun) and are moved in large groups to “nurseries.” After one to two years, the young oysters are transferred to bottom-sited reef structures throughout the harbor. Here, if all goes well, they will slowly grow, reproduce, and colonize the reef, ushering the return of a self-sustaining oyster population to New York Harbor.

Along the way, they’ll clean up our mess. It’s estimated an adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, removing sediment, phytoplankton, and nitrogen—a key pollutant in the harbor—in the process. In fact, a Nature Conservancy study showed that “under the right conditions, an acre of restored oyster reef could remove nearly 500 pounds of nitrogen from the water per year. […] At that rate, restoring about 1,300 acres of oyster reef would be about the same as building a state-of-the-art water treatment plant.”

Major Milestones

The launch of the Billion Oyster Project marks the start of a concerted effort to restore New York Harbor’s oyster population, but in reality, Harbor School students have been working on marine restoration for years. As part of the Oyster Restoration Research Partnership, students have already deposited seven million oysters on five experimental reefs throughout the harbor, and established multiple nursery sites.

Photo credit: Emily Manley via NYER
Photo credit: Emily Manley via NYER

School officials estimate that the MAST Center is capable of producing 100 million oysters each year but even still, the Billion Oyster Project is projected to take place over the next 20—quite a long-term project for four-year high school students to tackle.

And, as the project grows, space will become an issue. “We lack sufficient space for grow-out of juveniles into adults,” BOP materials state. The project currently operates two medium-scale nurseries, 17 oyster gardens, and two reef sites with a combined capacity of about 13.5 million spat. “We now need to add dozens more gardens and numerous additional acres of reef/on-bottom restoration sites. All of this requires additional resources, partners, permits, and the support of dedicated individuals and volunteers.”

The only thing they’re not considering: eating the bivalves. After growing up filtering New York Harbor water, the oysters are filled with bacteria and other toxins. But does that really matter? As senior Harbor School student Erin Nolan stated on Wednesday, “People enjoy eating oysters, but we’re growing them for a much bigger cause.”