When Henry Hudson sailed into the New York Harbor in 1609 on his way to the river that would bear his name, the waters were packed with 220,000 acres of oyster reefs. Unfortunately, by 1906, the harbor’s oyster population had been decimated due to overharvesting and pollution. The Billion Oyster Project (BOP) aims to fix that.
The local initiative, launched by the New York Harbor School and the New York Harbor Foundation, looks to plant one billion oysters in the New York Harbor by 2030. With ExxonMobil’s support, the program’s goal is to promote environmental stewardship, as well as restoration.
Why bring back the oysters?
They may be small, but oysters play a big role in restoring an entire ecosystem. A single adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, removing pollutants, algae and sediment from its environment. Their reefs also serve as homes for larger underwater organisms.
So far, the initiative, which formally launched in 2014, has restored 20 million oysters into the New York Harbor. By the end of the project, the oysters will theoretically filter the entire harbor, approximately 74 billion gallons of water, every three days.
Restoration and education
All of the oyster shells start their journey at ExxonMobil’s former Greenpoint refinery site, which is maintained by the company’s environmental services division in Brooklyn, N.Y. There the oyster shells are stored and reused after being collected from restaurants – saving them from landfills and reducing the number of trips around the city for the BOP collection trucks.
The idea for ExxonMobil’s involvement came about when Kevin Thompson, the company’s community liaison and an avid scuba diver, learned that New York Harbor School taught its students to dive and use their skills to monitor oysters. Shortly thereafter, a partnership was established, based on the organizations’ shared focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.
“BOP is not only about restoring oysters, but it serves as both an educational and environmental project, as well,” Thompson said.
The next step in the oysters’ journey is the classroom. Students from the Harbor School grow oyster larvae in their science labs to plant on the reused shells, and later the mature oysters are planted at various sites around the harbor. Harbor School and 60 other New York City public middle schools use the organisms in biology and ecology research projects, integrating BOP into STEM education.
“People often say New Yorkers are too busy to care about the well-being of the New York Harbor,” said Murray Fisher, founder and president of New York Harbor Foundation, founder of New York Harbor School and co-founder of the Billion Oyster Project. “But our project shows otherwise. We’ve successfully brought a community of advocates, partners and volunteers together to restore a billion oysters to New York Harbor.”
Image credit: New York Harbor Foundation