Ask any New Yorker and they’ll happily tell you, they know a lot about a lot. Living in the cultural capital of the world provides exposure to museums, theaters, incredible food and restaurants, universities and the greatest forum of all – the busy city streets. All of these resources are possible in New York because of the diverse populations of 8+ million people (and growing!). But for better or worse, those 8+ million people in a relatively small area mean New Yorkers also know something about pollution.
The newly reclaimed waterfront, and the relatively new collective consciousness about pollution and climate change has begun to lead activists, as well as federal, state and local officials, to begin to clean up our polluted waterways. One of the coolest and most innovative projects working to clean and restore New York Harbor is the Billion Oyster Project – something many New Yorkers know nothing about!
Governors Island is excited to be the home of the Billion Oyster Project (BOP). The project is a long-term, large-scale plan to restore one billion live oysters to New York Harbor over the next twenty years. Oyster reefs once covered more than 220,000 acres of the Harbor and provided massive ecological benefits including water filtration, wave attenuation and a habitat for thousands of marine species. Over time, excessive harvesting and pollutants flowing into the waters around New York degraded the oyster population into extinction. As waterways around New York Harbor have started to become cleaner, oysters can once again survive in the Harbor waters. Unlike many marine animals however, they need human assistance to return.
The Billion Oyster Project is using aquaculture to cultivate millions of baby oysters and rebuild reefs where these oysters can grow. At the Urban Assembly Harbor School, a public New York City School here on Governors Island, aquaculture and marine biology students oversee a hatchery and nursery where oysters are spawned and begin to grow. Once they are large enough, they are transferred by scientific diving students to reef structures built by engineering students on the floor of New York Harbor where they can continue to grow, reproduce and colonize new ground. The BOP hopes that eventually this will lead to a self-sustaining oyster population and restoration of the habitat and the Harbor.
Currently, 11 million oysters have been restored to New York Harbor by the students at the Urban Assembly Harbor School. Those oysters have filtered 19 trillion gallons of water, removing 6.75 million pounds of nitrogen from the Harbor. Only 989 million more oysters to go!
In addition to helping to restore the ecosystem of the Harbor and clean the East River, the BOP will help educate thousands of young people at the Harbor School in the process. Not only does the project provide and education in growing oysters or building an oyster reef, but more broadly it provides training for students in one of six (Aquaculture, Marine Biology Research, Marine Systems Technology, Ocean Engineering, Vessel Operation, and Scientific Diving) areas of marine science. These areas were carefully chosen to allow students to have a comprehensive understanding of the Harbor, the tides, how we use our waterways, and what is required for the restoration of the Harbor and estuary.
The skills the Harbor School students will learn through participation in the Billion Oyster Project will help them, the future leaders of New York, to understand the water, which is critical to understanding how to address rising tides, climate change and waterfront uses in the City. New Yorkers know a lot, but in a post-Hurricane Sandy world, many are just starting to learn about what it means to live surrounded by water. The Billion Oyster Project is restoring a habitat and building a new generation of New Yorkers who know a lot about a lot more.
To learn more about the Urban Assembly Harbor School and the Billion Oyster Project (and donate!), check out their respective websites at https://www.newyorkharborschool.org/ and https://www.billionoysterproject.org/