Counting Oysters In Brooklyn
June 11, 2018
By Jamie Hook
The Billion Oyster Project tests the waters of Bushwick Inlet Park
New York’s love affair with the oyster goes back far beyond the founding of America, beyond even the first settlements of the Dutch, to the days of the Lenape Indians. Prodigious consumers of oysters, the Lenape discarded their shells in great mountains, known as “Middens,” which abounded around what is now greater New York. These middens, some of which are still being unearthed today, tell a cautionary tale of the New York Oyster: Shells from the bottom of the piles are larger and more abundant than shells from the top, offering clear evidence of a now-vanished time when oysters grew in profusion to monstrous proportions. An early travelogue by Dutch minister Jasper Danckaerts in 1679 confirms these archeological observations, detailing the disorienting fact of oysters “large and full, some of them not less than a foot long,” growing throughout the waters of what is now the Gowanus Canal.
Of course, the present day Gowanus, and indeed the whole of New York Harbor, are largely devoid of oysters — quite the reversal for an estuary that, by some estimates, warehoused half the global supply of these bivalves back when this nation was founded. A combination of overharvesting, dredging, and pollution managed the trick, such that by the turn of the 20th century, New York’s once legendary oysters were a fast-fading memory.
This state of affairs was more than a mere gustatory setback: The loss of New York’s great oyster beds compounded the effects of environmental degradation on New York’s harbor, due in part to the fact that Oysters are among nature’s most effective water filtration systems. In fact, a single oyster can process as much as 50 gallons of water per day, making them excellent adjuncts 1972’s Clean Water Act, and the closest thing we have to a self-propagating natural harbor cleaner.
In addition, oyster reefs — those aggregations of living oysters and oyster shells — act as both natural breakwaters and surge protectors, and are keystone habitats for a great diversity of marine life. This makes an estuary rich in oysters both more ecologically diverse, and more resilient in the face of the volatility imposed by climate change.
It is this panoply of benefits deriving from the common oyster that drives the Billion Oyster Project (BOP). With a mission to introduce one billion oysters to NY Harbor by 2035, BOP combines both remediation and education initiatives to educate the public about the benefits of oysters, and restore the bivalves to New York Harbor. Hosted by NYC’s Harbor School, and working in tandem with the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, the BOP has, since 2014, engaged more than 7500 middle- and high-school students across 100 schools to restore some 25 Million oysters to our local waterways. And, as their name implies, they’re just getting started.
This past Saturday, BOP, in collaboration with the Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park (FBIP), offered a rare chance for North Brooklynites well past high-school to get their hands dirty and aid in the mission. The task at hand consisted of counting the oysters in Bushwick Inlet, where BOP and FBIP (this is getting fun!) worked together to suspend an advance team of the bivalves off a “living dock” in an effort to test that specific water body’s suitability for larger-scale installations to come.
With further help with the Greenpoint Monitor Museum, who own the small parcel of land abutting the inlet, and the North Brooklyn Boat Club, whose boats and mariners helped to access the inlet’s open waters, the organizers coordinated a handful of volunteers to haul oyster “restoration stations,” open them up, and get their hands extremely muddy.
The outing was led by BOP’s field technician Rob Buchanan, aided here by Harbor School students Rob Wygren (whose skills include SCUBA diving the murky waters of New York Harbor!) and Aanilya Allen. Under Buchanan’s watch, volunteers collected the muddy traps, opened them up, and counted, weighed, and measured the individual oysters, which are tagged for easy identification.
The information was collected by BOP, where it will be used to inform the emplacement of future oyster colonies throughout the city. As one field station among dozens scattered throughout the harbor, Bushwick Inlet’s colony acts as a living barometer of the harbor’s overall health, and provides a window into the murky waters surrounding us.
To the layman’s eye, the colony presented a teeming, muddy picture of marine health, with oysters co-mingling with all sorts of squirming, squirting sea creatures, including what looked like a sea millipede, and a rather annoyed blue crab. Volunteers extracted the clusters of oysters, washed them off, and recorded biometric data. Several underage attendants were only too pleased to help in the process of de-mudding the filthy creatures.
Oysters counted, Mr. Buchanan closed up the cages, and sent them back to the deep. The day’s efforts had confirmed that those oysters which survived the winter were on their way to maturity, indicating that, despite proximity to the rather toxic waters of Newtown Creek, Bushwick Inlet offers a suitable environment for a larger future colony. In the future, as time and funds allow, BOP will double down on this location, and install a reef that might someday grow to rival those of the past.