Oysters Oysters Oysters: A Trip to the Harbor School’s MAST Center

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.

Interior of The MAST Center oyster hatchery.

Interior of The MAST Center oyster hatchery. These tanks hold millions of oyster larvae, though only few of them will survive and grow on a shell. Image courtesy of The Trust.

“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.

Spat recently attached to an oyster shell.

Harbor School oyster spat that recently attached to a shell. These are some of the first oysters grown in NY Harbor water at the MAST Center.  Image courtesy of The Trust.

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.


Bringing the Oyster Back to New York Harbor

Oyster shells like these were used to create an artificial reef off of Governors Island

Today’s Brooklyn Daily Eagle updated readers on efforts to bring the oyster back to New York City.

Did you know that there was once 350,000 square miles of oyster reefs in the waterways of New York City? In fact, these tasty mollusks were  farmed in the East River as recently as the turn of the 20th century. Overfishing and environmental degradation eventually led to the decline of oysters in New York Harbor and now there are none left.

New York/New Jersey Baykeeper is working to change that by bring the oyster back to New York Harbor. In collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers, they are creating six artificial oyster reefs to be placed in waters around New York Harbor and up the Hudson River. One of these reefs was placed off of Governors Island in October.

The reefs, which are approximately 15 feet by 30 feet, were designed to mimic natural reefs as much as possible. During the next two years scientists will use the reefs as research platforms to characterize oyster reef development survival and growth of the oysters themselves as well as ecosystem services provided by the reefs.

The artificial reef isn’t the only oyster restoration project happening on Governors Island. The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School is growing oysters that will be placed in experimental sites, including this one, around the Harbor.

Rising Currents and Oyster-tecture

Oyster midden on Governors Island

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has commissioned five teams to propose harbor infrastructure solutions to help make New York City more resilient to the effects of rising sea levels and climate change. This project is part workshop, part upcoming exhibit, and it’s called “Rising Currents.”  From our vantage point in the middle of New York Harbor, we’ve been following their progress with great interest.  

One of the teams led by SCAPE Studio and Kate Orff, is exploring “Oyster-tecture” – using oyster reefs to grow an ecosytem while attenuating waves from storm and flooding events. In fact, the New York Harbor School is already piloting an oyster restoration project here on Governors Island.  The underwater oyster incubator has the endearing name of FLUPSY (flowing upweller system).  It houses thousands of baby oysters in protective structures until they are big enough to go out into the harbor on their own.  For a fascinating peek inside the FLUPSY, check out the short video below featuring Pete Malinowski of the New York Harbor School. MoMA’s blog, Inside/Out ,will also fill you in on the progress of each team. Better yet, you can go see the teams yourself at an Open House this Saturday, January 9, 2010 from 2PM – 6PM at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center.  You may never think about the harbor the same way again.


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