The Billion Oyster Project: How Ecologists Are Using Tiny Mollusks to Shore Up New York City’s Waterways

by Owen James Burke

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Photo: Edible Brooklyn. (No, these oysters won’t be edible.)

Once upon a time, there were people who called themselves the Lenape occupying modern-day New York City. They tended oyster beds which not only fed them, but kept their waters clean.

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Photo: Edible Brooklyn.

Then the Europeans arrived. These new settlers also had a taste for oysters, but as beds became depleted and the concept of “waste management” was yet to be discovered, the craggy mollusks faced a massive die-off. By 1923, New York City had closed the last of its oyster beds.

Today, eating an oyster from New York City waters is probably about as safe as eating one off the floor in the main terminal at Grand Central Station, but just because we’re not eating them doesn’t mean that this once-flush 330-square-mile region of reefs can continue without them.

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Photo: Edible Brooklyn.

Enter the New York Harbor School and the Billion Oyster Project, an initiative–relying mostly on student efforts–with hopes of reinvigorating the ecosystem with one billion oysters, whose beds will also help buffer the city’s vulnerable, low-lying islands from Atlantic storms.

“One billion oysters distributed across 100 acres would theoretically filter the entire standing volume of the New York Harbor — 75 billion gallons, from the Goethals to the Verrazano to the GWB — in just three days,” says Sam Janis, project manager at the New York Harbor Foundation.


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Illustrated by Scuttlefish friend Bowsprite.

If you do find yourself craving oysters while in the New York City metropolitan area, head an hour up or down the coast, and you’ll still find some of the best oysters on the planet. And, might I suggest saving yourself the stuffy, sterile experience of white tablecloth dining? Instead,go down to a local seafood market, pick up a bushel of oysters, a few bottles of Sauvignon blanc, bubbly, lager or ale (as you like), grab a few shucking knives and call a few friends or family members down to the shore for a picnic. Don’t know how to shuck an oyster? We’ve got you covered. Here’s how (and when), illustrated by Scuttlefish friend Bowsprite. –OJB


Recommended Reading:

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The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, by Mark Kurlansky.

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American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, by Paul Greenberg.

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