One permanent resident of Governors Island, our bivalve friend the oyster, has been increasing by the millions. New York Harbor School students, under the watchful eye of aquaculture teacher Pete Malinowski, are growing oysters on Governors Island with the aim to repopulate the NY Harbor. Since 2009, the students have successfully introduced 7.5 million oysters to several locations, including off of Governors Island, the Harbor Schools nursery in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and a reef at the mouth of the Bronx River. The end goal? A billion oysters in 20 years through the Billion Oyster Project!
I toured the Harbor School’s oyster hatchery, the MAST Center, with Pete Malinowski. After showing me the tanks where young oyster larvae are grown, he had great news to share.
“This year for the first time we’re using New York Harbor water and these are the first bivalve oyster larvae grown in NY Harbor water.” “It’s a big deal because there is no way any of this [Billion Oyster Project] would be feasible if we couldn’t do it in NYC Harbor water.”
Although adult oysters can dramatically filter water, in the early stages of development the free floating spat are very sensitive to water quality conditions and will die in polluted water.
That oysters can reproduce in NY Harbor water at the high densities seen in the Harbor School hatchery is a major step forward for an area where oyster have had incredible difficulty growing since the 1920’s. Pete explained that the NY Harbor and the Hudson River used to have many billions of oysters that helped sustain an incredible underwater ecosystem. “There were over a hundred species of fish that either ate or lived in or gave birth in NY Harbor oysters beds.”
However, over-harvesting and pollution decimated the oyster population. By the middle of the 19th century, most of the native oysters were gone and by the 1920’s, the water was so polluted that even oyster farms couldn’t survive. It was only after the Clean Water Act of 1972 that NY Harbor water began to become less toxic.
For the Billion Oysters Project, growing oyster larvae in Harbor water is a milestone. Although the oysters are currently being grown in the controlled environment of the MAST center, the oysters will eventually have to reproduce in the NY Harbor on their own. This new batch of oysters prove that it is possible.
For Pete, the number of oysters grown is really a byproduct. “The main reason I do it is to provide this experience to students. Most people don’t know what is going on in the water and it really changes your perspective.”
The oyster program is hitting its stride this year. For one, this year’s graduating class is the first with four years of aquaculture classes. Also, the Harbor School has been running an oyster gardening program to allow students in Middle School to have an oyster experience. Middle School teachers get oyster gardens hanging in the Harbor near their schools to take care of and bring students to.
Thank you to the Harbor School and Pete Malinowski for the tour.