Apparently, wild oysters used to stabilize the shoreline against storm surges
No, we're not talking about oysters to eat. In fact, not eating oysters might have been key. Paul Greenberg over at The New York Times has a fascinating piece on how oysters used to shelter the Northeast shoreline by building enormous reefs underwater, holding the shores in place.
According to Greenberg, oysters used to pack the shoreline, as oysters layered over adult oysters for some 7,000 years, breaking up the waves before they hit the coast. "Beds closer to shore clarified the water through their assiduous filtration (a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day); this allowed marsh grasses to grow, which in turn held the shores together with their extensive root structure," he writes.
Unfortunately, thanks to our forefathers eating a bit too many of these oysters, and the development of New York for road beds, most of these oysters are gone, which leaves our shores somewhat unprotected.
But there's good news, Greenberg says: Oysters might be making a comeback. With acts like the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, plus organizations like the Hudson River Foundation, New York oysters can now survive in the waterways, and test reefs are slowly growing. Let's just hope there's even more oysters on the shore the next time a storm comes through town. Head on over to the TImes for the full, fascinating read.
The Humble Oyster
Pulling into a muddy boat launch on a cold January morning, I looked out across the calm waters to a small island about a quarter mile offshore. Jutting out of the murky Caminada Bay are white poles that mark the floating oyster cages owned by Scott Maurer of Louisiana Oyster Company. I stepped around twisted and broken equipment, my boots crunching against the oyster shells scattered in every direction.
“This is still the fallout,” Maurer told me as he scanned the gear. “You can still see the tangle of stuff. It’s everywhere. There might be a thousand oyster cages here.”
Seven hurricanes. Five evacuations. A global pandemic. What Maurer had hoped would be a break-out year for his oyster business ended up being more of a break down. Hurricane Zeta, the sixth storm to make landfall in Louisiana in 2020, came right up through the oyster farms of Grand Isle and swept many of them out to sea. “I’m not naive. You know as an oyster farmer in the Gulf that it’s going to happen at some point,” Maurer told me. “But what made this so heartbreaking is that it all happened on top of the pandemic.”
Before March of 2020, one hundred percent of Maurer’s oyster sales were wholesale: from the water, to the distributers and the chefs, and finally the customer’s plate. In that order. “When COVID hit, and all of the restaurants started shutting down, it changed the game completely. And of course, it happened to coincide with a time on the farm where I had an abundance of oysters ready to be harvested.”
Scott Maurer has faced a difficult year as an oyster farmer. But, almost by obligation, he remains hopeful that next year will be better.
As statewide mandates swept across cities in an effort to curve the spread of the virus, restaurants were forced to shutter or drastically reduce occupancy. This left Maurer, and the entire oyster industry, in a serious predicament. What do you do when you have millions of oysters ready to be pulled from the water, sorted, washed, packed, and delivered, and a shortage of restaurants to deliver them to?
For Maurer a solution came in the form of a very unexpected oyster dish: pizza. “I met chefs Michael and Christopher Ball through a surf club in Grand Isle. They were just starting a pizza pop-up in New Orleans called Yin Yang Pie. We went out on the farm, harvested some oysters, and in a stroke of genius they came up with the char-grilled oyster pizza. They brought it back to their pop-up at Zony Mash Brewery, and it just exploded from there. It was so popular they started inviting me to shuck oysters with them.”
And that’s how Maurer survived: shucking oysters on street corners, at breweries, pop-up markets, and even backyards. “It was the one bright spot in all of this. Getting to see the customers enjoy my oysters. To put a freshly shucked one right into someone’s hand and see them eat it. They get wide-eyed,” Maurer said. “And when they finish, they always say it is one of the best oysters they have ever eaten.”
When the time came for chefs to cautiously re-open their doors, Maurer was ready. He started fronting oysters to restaurants who were afraid they wouldn’t be able stay open through the end of the month due to confusing and constantly changing guidelines. “These chefs were struggling to find a foothold, and I had a great product to get people in the door.” Maurer said. “A lot of positive came out of this symbiotic relationship formed between us. These chefs are always the ones who step up and help the community. I didn’t want to ask them for help, because I knew they were hurting too. We had to find a way to help each other.”
It was a gamble, but with storms brewing in the Gulf, Maurer had no choice but to harvest as many oysters as he could anyway.
Newly opened boutique oyster spots like Side Car, and the wildly innovative Japanese restaurant Yo Nashi put Maurer’s oysters on their menus. He started making the drive north to the Big Easy multiple times a week to drop off oysters to the restaurants, shuck at brew-eries, and make home deliveries. These home deliveries—facilitated through social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram—were a phenomenal shift in the business model for farmers across the industry. As restrictions began to ease, things were starting to look up for the oyster business and the restaurants.
That is, until late October of 2020, when Hurricane Zeta slammed into the Gulf Coast with sustained winds of one hundred miles per hour, flooding roads in and out of Grand Isle and making it nearly impossible for Maurer—who evacuated for the storm—to even make the trip back to check on the fate of his farm.
Nathan Herring of Brightside Oysters, which shares the same waters as Maurer’s farm, was the first to make it back. “It was really bad,” Herring said, fighting back emotions that were still raw. “It was unrecognizable.” Most of the equipment and oyster cages were lost, and what was recovered was found miles away from the farm during helicopter flyovers. The anchors that held down the lines were twisted and mangled by the force of the storm. The ropes snapped, sending the gear and the oysters to an uncertain and possibly irretrievable fate.
Herring’s family and friends made the drive down to Grand Isle to help with the clean-up efforts. “We just dove right in,” Herring recalled. “As long as the oysters stayed in the water, they were still alive. We managed to salvage enough of them that I could keep selling and make some money to help repair the damaged equipment.” While the recovered oysters put a dent in the repairs, Herring has had to tak on another full-time job to support himself and save money to rebuild his farm.
Maurer and Herring’s experiences are not isolated. Hurricanes continue to pose a serious and repeated threat to the industry as a whole. Aside from the structural damage we can see, much of the harm is invisible to the naked eye. Hurricanes drastically alter reef structures where oysters breed, and changes in water salinity can wipe out entire ecosystems. Such threats from Mother Nature combine with that of human interference in the ecosystem. Nearly eleven years later, Louisiana’s oyster population is still recovering from the effects of the 2010 B.P. oil spill, and suffering repeated assaults by the fact that the Bonnet Carré Spillway has been opened a record-shattering four times over the course of the last three years, flushing oyster farms with dangerous runoff from the Mississippi River again and again.
“I’ve never met an atheist fisherman,” Maurer laughed. “I don’t care what your beliefs are. We have all been scared enough at some point to pray out to someone or something. And if you haven’t yet, you will.”
"A good oyster is like kissing the ocean on the mouth. That's what they are: a snap shot of what is going on in the ocean at the time that it is harvested. Once it closes its shell, the shutter drops. It is a delicious picture of what is going on in the environment at that moment."
On top of the storm damage caused by Hurricane Zeta at his farm, Maurer also lost his home. “One of the guys that stayed texted me when they were in the eye wall, saying he was looking at my house and everything was good. Then, the winds came back from the opposite direction and my phone rang, and he said he spoke too soon.”
“I didn’t focus on my life to start with,” said Maurer. “I just focused on selling as many oysters as I could to get as much gear off the farm to begin repairs.” He couch surfed for weeks, and even slept in an old shipping container filled with his broken gear. “Through it all, I just kept working non-stop. You wake up at dawn and go out on the boat and work on the farm until night. Come back and answer phone calls and emails and design logos and make posts on social media until you just pass out. Then you sleep a few hours and do it all again.”
When I asked him if he is optimistic for 2021, he smiled: “To a fault. I do this so I can be happy making a living on the water. I can always catch something to eat, and I eat well. I love this lifestyle. And if I make money doing it? Great. If not? I’m still going to be happy living on an island.”
Optimistic he may be, but Maurer knows what he is up against. Referencing the iconic black and white photographs from the heyday of oyster harvests in Louisiana, which depict giant oyster boats loaded down with mountains of shells, he said: “You know why those photos are in black and white? Because it’s been that long since there have been that many wild oysters out there to harvest.”
When one participates in the ritula of sitting down to a freshly shucked Gulf dozen and a cold beer, it’s no doubt that this industry is vital to our local culture. It’s also a major contributor to the country at large, which receives 35–45% percent of its oysters from Louisiana waters. A nutritional and low calorie source of protein, vitamins, and minerals, and delicious as they are, oys-ters are more than a culinary delight. They are a source of jobs as well. They are a living coastline, a three-dimensional structure that creates a home for juvenile fish and crabs. They are a sustainable food source. And they create an important buffer against future storm surges.
“Before I started doing this I never believed so much good could come from a humble oyster,” Maurer said. “The caveat is that they also taste great. A good oyster is like kissing the ocean on the mouth. That’s what they are: a snap shot of what is going on in the ocean at the time that it is harvested. Once it closes its shell, the shutter drops. It is a delicious picture of what is going on in the environment at that moment. If you time it just right, at the peak of an incoming tide, you can really taste that fresh, crisp ocean flavor.”
Both Maurer and Herring are rebuilding their farms, and will soon be seeding new crops of oysters. If you would like to support their efforts, check out their websites: louisianaoysters.com and brightsideoysters.com.
You can also help Herring to rebuild his farm by contributing to his Go Fund Me.
Sandy's Damage Under The Sea, Through The Eyes Of Oyster Farmers
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy wrapped up a post Hurricane Sandy news briefing earlier this week by talking about sewage discharges into Long Island Sound. "Suffice to say in the immediate time being, no one should eat the clams or oysters," he said.
That's right. Because of water quality issues, the state put a temporary stop to oyster farming, but that's usually a short-term thing and it happens fairly regularly after a big storm.
But Hurricane Sandy may have had a far more lasting impact on some in the oyster industry in terms of pure destruction of the oyster's fragile habitat.
Norman Bloom and his son, Jimmy Bloom are oyster farmers at Norm Bloom and Son in Norwalk, Conn. Their family has been raising oysters for three generations now on 2,000 underwater acres of oysters in Long Island Sound. And, on Wednesday, two days after the storm, I tagged along as the Blooms were finally able to get out on the water to assess the damage.
The Shinnecock Indian Reservation’s beach in Long Island, New York. Photo: Anuradha Varanasi
On a sunny Monday afternoon in August, the Shinnecock Indian Reservation’s beach in Long Island, New York, resembled one of the postcard-perfect beaches in the nearby Hamptons. Except, there weren’t any sunbathing tourists around. The coastline was quiet and serene with several inlets flowing into a nearby pond, surrounded by lush greenery and a thick forest. Amidst this sprawled a cemetery where tribal members have been buried for centuries. The only visible signs of human activity on the beach were ashes and dried flowers left behind on the soft sand from a recent wedding ceremony.
Post-Hurricane Sandy, this coastal area was far from being a source of pride or a place to celebrate for the members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation tribe. Sandy’s storm surge and destructive winds had left the shoreline completely barren and uneven. The pond had turned into a stagnant body of water for mosquito larvae to thrive in. Over the next two years, the stench from the hurricane-ravaged beach became unbearable. Even during daytime, locals were forced to avoid the beach because of the hordes of mosquitoes that would attack them.
As the seawater kept invading the Shinnecock tribe’s land, several trees in the forest by the shoreline started withering away. During high tide, the Native Americans lived with constant fear and anxiety that the Atlantic Ocean would swallow up their ancestors’ burial ground that was built right next to the beach.
Post-Hurricane Sandy, the beach turned into a desolate stretch of land. Photo: Shinnecock Environmental Department, Matthew Ballard.
“It was a stinky muck. Our tree line was fading away as the water levels were four to five feet deep into the outer edges of the forest long after Hurricane Sandy had subsided,” said Viola Cause, natural resource manager at the Shinnecock Nation Environmental Department. Even the town’s cedar trees, which are known to be tolerant of saltwater, had started dying.
Viola Cause, natural resource manager at the Shinnecock Nation Environmental Department, and her colleague observe the shoreline from their ancestors’ burial ground where photography is strictly prohibited. Photo: Anuradha Varanasi
The Shinnecock tribe is a community of 650 multi-generational families who have historically been known as “people of the stony shore” — whalers, fishermen, hunters, and gatherers. They refused to helplessly witness the rapid deterioration of their 3,000-foot-long shoreline. So, Shavonne Smith, environmental director of the Shinnecock Indian Nation tribe, and her colleagues decided to revive all of the coastal habitats back to their previous state, which the tribe’s elders were ruefully nostalgic about.
Shavonne Smith, director of the Shinnecock Environmental Department, at the Earth Institute’s Managed Retreat conference in Columbia University. Photo: Earth Institute
As other coastal towns and cities in the US were considering building expensive sea walls to adapt to sea-level rise, these officials and tribal trustees decided to explore alternative solutions. After attending several conferences and consulting various experts, Smith and her colleagues gradually started coming up with a plan. Their determination to find the right expertise and adequate funds to restore their shoreline and protect their land from the surging Atlantic Ocean paid off after two years.
In 2014, they collaborated with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and marine biologists from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County to draft a proposal for a Hurricane Sandy relief grant. A few months later, they were awarded $3.75 million by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
“We were thrilled. It was the partnership with the USGS and Cornell that helped in putting together a concrete climate change adaptation plan,” said Smith.
After working closely with the marine biologists, they came up with a comprehensive plan that involved seven key components to reduce the impact of the relentless waves crashing into the edges of the Shinnecock peninsula. The Coastal Habitat Restoration Project finally kicked off a year later, in 2015, with 12 people from the tribe dedicated to working on the project full-time.
The first stage involved planting several different kinds of grasses, including Phragmites and Spartina, or cordgrasses that grow in coastal marshlands. These grasses would hold the sand in place, preventing further erosion, and improve the wildlife habitats around the shoreline. To protect the grass seedlings from being trampled, the team installed fences around the beach. The fences were left in place over the next four years, along with signs that warned locals against dirt biking or using any other vehicles on the beach.
The sprigs of grass that were newly planted by the community started growing in 2017. Photo: Shinnecock Environmental Department, Matthew Ballard
“Our community came out to support us and planted every seed and single sprigs of grass manually to bring back what we had lost,” said Cause.
The next step was to create more barriers to break wave energy and prevent any further erosion from taking place. That could be made possible by re-opening the tribe’s long-closed oyster hatchery. Unfortunately for the Shinnecock community, they had lost all of their oyster reefs in the mid-1980s after a massive outbreak of brown tides, or harmful algal blooms, and decades of overharvesting. Following that, their hatchery shut down. The oyster reefs had started to recover from that onslaught only after two long decades.
As the frequency of far more intense storms like Sandy increases due to climate change, experts have found rebuilding oyster reefs in coastal areas protects shorelines from erosion naturally. They act as nature’s speedbumps by absorbing the waves’ energy before they hit the coast.
The grant enabled the Shinnecock to re-build a solar-powered hatchery. Here, they carefully raised oyster larvae in tanks, feeding them fresh algae that were grown in the hatchery. Nearby, in a greenhouse, the tribe grew the grass and shrubs that they would continue planting along the edges of the beach, to restore natural habitats and fight against further erosion.
They started creating oyster reefs from scratch using calcified shells. The marine biologists then planted them on the seafloor. Following that, they released oyster larvae onto the reef, where they were expected to grow after attaching themselves to those shells.
An aerial view of the oyster reefs during low-tide. Photo: Shinnecock Environmental Department, Matthew Ballard
While at first things were going as planned, the Coastal Habitat Restoration Project team ran into a huge challenge: The larvae refused to attach to the shells. “During different stages of the project over the last four years, we had to go through a lot of trial and error,” said Cause, while pointing out to the spots where the oyster reefs are now flourishing.
“It was only after several trials did we figure out how to get the oyster larvae to attach and grow successfully. We faced similar challenges while planting the grasses and shrubs, but managed to get things right after a few attempts,” she added.
Staying true to their ancestors’ reputation as the “people of the stony shores,” the team from the Shinnecock Environmental Department also placed heavy boulders along the 3,000 feet of shoreline. Members of the tribe joined in over several weeks and helped in placing boulders, and also throwing smaller rocks around the boulders, to add an extra layer of protection from the relentless waves.
An aerial view of the coastline and surrounding habitats that took years to recover after the Coastal Habitat Restoration Project first kicked off in 2015. Photo: Shinnecock Environmental Department, Matthew Ballard
Although Cause admits that they could have built a seawall instead, they were worried it might further accelerate erosion and affect the area’s biodiversity. “We wanted to prove that there are effective natural adaptation strategies even though it takes a lot of time and patience,” she said.
After successfully putting all these natural mechanisms in place to hold sand in place even during heavy rainfall events, the next stage was to replenish the beach.
The team — including the tribe members, marine biologists, and other experts from the Suffolk County — used 20 huge tubes to dredge sand from the bottom of a nearby canal. They then pumped around 30,000 cubic yards of sand onto the lifeless beach.
“The biggest challenge in completing this project was the overall scale and complexity of it,” said Christopher Pickerell, marine program director at Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Shortly after that, the marine biologists went diving again to plant eelgrass in the water along the entire shoreline, to not only improve the scope of fish nesting but also to add another natural mechanism that is known to reduce the waves’ impact.
Today, the tribe is proud to observe the shoreline curving and watch the waves receding to the edges of the beach where they planted the grasses. “Now, we’re seeing the marshland moving out into the water, which is incredible because post-Hurricane Sandy, the reverse was happening,” explained Cause. “Today, our elders look at the beach and say it reminds them of their childhood when the beach was naturally curved.”
Viola Cause continues to monitor the beach with her colleagues regularly. Photo: Anuradha Varanasi
Seeing the beach being transformed to its previous glory not only boosted the morale of the tribe but also helped in bringing back their local habitats. Last year, while the officials from the Shinnecock Nation Environmental Department were working on the beach to divert the flow of water into inlets that lead to the pond, they heard a distinct fluttering sound. Curious to see the source, they paused to look up. Much to their awe, the group witnessed a kaleidoscope of monarch butterflies settling on the flowers of the shrubs they had planted several months ago.
A few years after the coastal habitat restoration project first kicked off in 2015, the tribe has noticed more dragonflies and marshland birds visiting the shoreline. Even turkeys have been returning to roost in the forest’s trees. Since the oyster reefs started flourishing and the tribe got rid of stagnant water in the pond, there has also been an increase in the population of snapping turtles, who thrive in freshwater and love to feast on oysters.
The pond and surrounding marshland area, which were previously mosquitoes’ havens, are now home to snapping turtles and other habitats. Photo: Anuradha Varanasi
“One of the components of the work that was most fulfilling to me was the fact that we were able to greatly reduce the mosquito breeding issue that was present before the project started,” said Pickerell. “By opening up and enhancing flushing to one of the tidal ponds, we were also able to bring in more fish to feed on the mosquitoes’ larvae.”
While the tribe successfully created a buffer between the sea and the Shinnecock Indian Reservation to protect their ancestors’ burial grounds, Pickerell warns that the Shinnecock community will continue to face threats from sea-level rise in the future.
“Regardless of how wide the beach is, it will never be high enough to prevent flooding during storms and other significant events. Water will find its way into the reservation from all sides. It’s going to be a long-term challenge for them,” added Pickerell.
A drone video that was taken in 2016 after several components of the Coastal Habitat Restoration Project were completed. Video: Shinnecock Environmental Department, Matthew Ballard
Relocation is More Than a New Address
For Smith, the project has been a success and is effectively protecting their peninsula for now, mainly because of the relentless hard work and effort the tribal community committed to for four years. “Our project was all about bringing scientific and traditional knowledge together,” she said.
Other tribes living along coastlines may not be so fortunate. In most of these communities, the conversation isn’t focused on how to rebuild and adapt to rising seas instead, there is the fear of forced relocation. For indigenous people living in the U.S., the very idea of being forced to leave their ancestors’ land yet again is both scary and immensely painful.
During a managed retreat conference hosted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University in June, Smith gave a talk entitled, “Relocation is More than a New Address”.
“Your location is what your culture is. When you ask tribal people to relocate, you’re changing more than an address. You’re also changing parts of our culture,” she said.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the impacts of climate change are going to severely affect 567 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. Nearly half of these tribes reside in Alaska Native communities, who are the most vulnerable to melting permafrost, sea ice, and glaciers. Several others living in coastal areas are faced with the daunting reality of being forced to relocate due to sea-level rise.
Take, for instance, the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw (IDJC) Tribe in coastal Louisiana. In 2016, the tribe came to be known as the “first climate refugees” in the U.S., after it was reported they lost 98 percent of their land due to rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and a series of hurricanes. From being an island with 22,400 acres of land in the 1950s, only 320 acres are above water today.
An aerial view of the Isle de Jean Charles island that is 80 miles away from New Orleans. Photo: The official website of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana
Most of the tribe agreed to work with the state to relocate their community. Yet in January 2019, the state of Louisiana announced that it had purchased land further inland for the tribe to live on — without approval from the tribe itself. The tribe members were left feeling blind-sided they found out about the state’s complete takeover and closing of the purchase only after seeing the press release stating the resettlement project was “spearheaded by the IDJC tribe”.
During the managed retreat conference, Albert Naquin, chief of the IDJC tribe, expressed his disappointment and discontentment about losing ownership of their homes that still exist on the Isle de Jean Charles island. Currently, only 34 families still live on the island — a narrow strip of land — that is 80 miles away from New Orleans.
In the U.S., the bulk of funding to deal with sea-level rise goes to voluntary buyout programs, and these funds are mostly awarded to predominantly white communities. Kevin Loughran, a postdoctoral fellow from Rice University, stated that, since 2000, the Federal Emergency Management Agency bought 3,000 homes within the Houston metro area that belonged to white and affluent homeowners. Not surprisingly, these families moved to even more rich and white neighborhoods within Texas.
However, for indigenous communities, that is not an option. During a heated panel discussion at the conference, Reverend Tyrone Edwards, who belongs to a tribal community in coastal Louisiana, asserted that it is important for others to respect the decisions of indigenous communities — even if they decide to remain on lands that are made vulnerable by climate change.
“We can’t leave and disconnect from our land that has our families’ blood in the soil. We are the first people of this region, and we have a right to our way of life. If we relocate, that can’t be replicated,” he said. “Indigenous communities can save their land. We just don’t have the resources.”
How The Humble Oyster May Help Save Coastal Cities And Clean Polluted Waters
Mention oysters and the two things that come to mind are slurping them down or wrenching them open for pearls. But now these mollusks may have a bigger role - that of protecting our waterfront cities from rising sea levels and giant storm surges like the one experienced by New York during Hurricane Sandy, and helping clean our increasingly polluted waters.
New York landscape architect Kate Orff and her team at SCAPE studio are the visionaries behind Oyster-Tecture - A man-made par k and living reef that they want to create at the mouth of the city's Gowanus Canal an area that was once covered with hundreds of square miles of oysters. Unfortunately they have now more or less disappeared because the edges and ridges that young oysters attach themselves to, were destroyed by underwater dredging that was needed to create shipping routes. What's ironic is that today the canal is known not for its transportation activities, but for being one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States.
In order to re-introduce the oysters to the canal the team has proposed a design that they call a 'flupsy', or a 'floating upwelling system'. This is essentially a raft with an oyster nursery sunken below the water to allow the oyster eggs to mature to the adolescent phase, where they become known as 'spats.' As they mature from 'spat' to an adult oyster, the shellfish need a place to settle and attach. For that Orff envisions woven nets that will not only provide a comfortable niche for oysters but other kinds of marine life as well, eventually resulting in a living reef. Kate believes that the reefs will act as natural sea-walls, slowing the push of storm waves and rising water, and protecting the city from severe storm damage.
Unfortunately Orff who first proposed this solution almost two years ago, has not met with much success yet, thanks to city regulations that restrict a 'fill' in the harbor. Also, the fact that some recent oyster plantings attempted by the local city departments got destroyed by currents and boat wakes does not help. And then there is the cost - With a bed of million oysters costing about $50,000 USD, and the fact that billions of mollusks would need to be harvested, city officials are a little reluctant to try an experiment that could take at least a decade , to prove successful.
But there is hope that Oyster-Tecture may get its day in the sun. That's because when Mayor Bloomberg recently unveiled his $19.5 billion USD plan to defend New York City against the seas, included in his proposal, was the construction of oyster reefs!
But while officials all over the country may be skeptical about the mollusk's ability to save our coastline, they have no doubt about its other talent - Cleaning up our polluted waters. Using their gills, the oysters efficiently suck up algae, nitrogen, and other pollutants and filter out clean water back into the environment . Experts estimate that each mollusk can clean up to 50 gallons of water a day!
It is therefore not surprising that there is currently a nationwide movement to try to restore this once abundant bivalve . Maryland has already succeeded in re-establishing one of the largest oyster sanctuaries in the world and a project is also underway in Chesapeake Bay where a combination of over-fishing, pollution and disease, has devastated the population of oysters in an area that Native Americans once called Shellfish Bay. Earlier this year, Federal and state agencies set aside $30 million USD to try restore the mollusks, improve the water quality, as well as stabilize the shorelines of the 3,200 square-mile estuary. Some of this money has already been put to use with the harvesting of two billion baby oysters in Harry Creek, a narrow tributary of the Choptank River, Delaware.
While it will take years before the experts really know if the creek's oysters can sustain themselves and thrive again, naturalists are hopeful. That's because if successful it may inspire similar projects throughout the world, which will not only help us, but also, sea life and migratory birds that have been using oyster reefs as habitats for years! Who knew that the humble oyster was so important to our well being?
Protecting the City, Before Next Time
After the enormous storm last week, which genuinely panicked New York with its staggering and often fatal violence, residents here could certainly identify with the first line of Benchley’s note. But what about the second?
If, as climate experts say, sea levels in the region have not only gradually increased, but are also likely to get higher as time goes by, then the question is: What is the way forward? Does the city continue to build ever-sturdier and ever-higher sea walls? Or does it accept the uncomfortable idea that parts of New York will occasionally flood and that the smarter method is to make the local infrastructure more elastic and better able to recover?
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday gave a sea wall the nod. Because of the recent history of powerful storms hitting the area, he said, elected officials have a responsibility to consider new and innovative plans to prevent similar damage in the future. “Climate change is a reality,” Mr. Cuomo said. “Given the frequency of these extreme weather situations we have had, for us to sit here today and say this is once in a generation and it’s not going to happen again, I think would be shortsighted.”
But some experts in the field who have thought deeply about how to protect New York from huge storms like Hurricane Sandy — and especially from the coastal surges they produce — suggested that less intrusive forms of so-called soft infrastructure might prove more effective in sheltering the city than mammoth Venetian sea walls. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg seemed to agree with them on Thursday when he said: “I don’t think there’s any practical way to build barriers in the oceans. Even if you spent a fortune, it’s not clear to me that you would get much value for it.”
According to the experts — architects, environmentalists and civil engineers — large-scale projects like underwater gates are expensive, cumbersome and difficult to build. More important, they say, such undertakings are binary projects that work just fine until the moment they do not.
Whatever the way forward, Klaus H. Jacob, a Columbia University seismologist and an expert on urban environmental disasters, said the century-event of Hurricane Sandy could become, because of rising seas alone, an annual occurrence by 2100.
“We know what we have to do,” said Dr. Jacob, who predicted last week’s tragedy with eerily prescient detail in a 2011 report. “The question is when do we get beyond talking and get to action.”
Among those actions already proposed are relatively minor alterations to the building code, to ban housing boilers and electrical systems in basements, and slightly more apocalyptic strategies, like one known as managed retreat, in which people would cede low-lying areas to the sea. While no one is calling for a mass and permanent exodus from the Rockaways, for instance, some experts, like Radley Horton, a climatologist at Columbia University, said that as parts of New York became more difficult — and costly — to protect, managed retreat needed at least to become “part of the public discussion.”
Here, then, are three proposals — some traditional, some fantastic, but all at least theoretically workable — designed to reduce the effects of storms like Hurricane Sandy on three especially vulnerable New York neighborhoods: Lower Manhattan, the Red Hook and Gowanus sections of Brooklyn, and the northern shore of Staten Island.
Marshy Edges, Absorptive Streets
Picture a fringe of mossy wetlands strapped like a beard to Lower Manhattan’s chin, and you are halfway toward imagining the plan to protect the financial district and its environs dreamed up by the architect Stephen Cassell and a team from his firm, Architecture Research Office, and a partner firm, dlandstudio.
“Our goal was to design a more resilient city,” Mr. Cassell said. “We may not always be able to keep the water out, so we wanted to improve the edges and the streets of the city to deal with flooding in a more robust way.”
Among the most disturbing images to emerge from the aftermath of the storm was that of a pile of cars floating upended in the waters of a parking lot near Wall Street. Lower Manhattan, where most of the borough’s power failures occurred, is vulnerable to floods like this not just because it sits low in relation to the sea it also juts out on heaps of artificial landfill, into the fickle waters of New York Harbor. It is probably not coincidental that the flooded areas of Manhattan, largely correspond to the island’s prelandfill borders.
To prevent incursions by water, Mr. Cassell and his planners imagined ringing Lower Manhattan with a grassy network of land-based parks accompanied by watery patches of wetlands and tidal salt marshes. At Battery Park, for instance, the marshes would weave through a series of breakwater islands made of geo-textile tubes and covered with marine plantings. On the Lower East Side of the island, Mr. Cassell and his team envisioned extending Manhattan by a block or two — with additional landfill — to create space for another new park and a salt marsh.
Beyond serving as recreation areas, these engineered green spaces would sop up and reduce the force of incoming water.
A rendering of Lower Manhattan that shows tidal marshes to absorb waves.
Credit. Architecture Research Office and dlandstudio
A rendering of Lower Manhattan that shows tidal marshes to absorb waves.
Credit. Architecture Research Office and dlandstudio
The water rose in Dumbo, Brooklyn, on Monday.
Credit. Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
A reef constructed from rock and shell piles to host oyster growth, as seen in a rendering for a proposal in Brooklyn. Such a structure could filter water and mitigate storm surge.
Credit. Scape/Landscape Architecture
Red Hook, Brooklyn, was hit hard last week by flooding from Hurricane Sandy.
Credit. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Oyster beds as depicted in a rendering for a proposal in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The shellfish could be cultivated by community groups and seeded on a planned reef, part of a water filtration and surge-mitigating system.
Credit. Scape/Landscape Architecture
Flooding under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway near the Gowanus Canal.
Credit. Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
A rendering of a storm barrier with a drawbridge on Arthur Kill, intended to protect Staten Island in a Category 3 hurricane.
A rescue from Dongan Hills, Staten Island, on Tuesday.
Credit. Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times
“When there’s a storm surge, it creates an enormous amount of energy,” Mr. Cassell said. “Wetlands absorb that energy and protect the coastline.”
As a complement to the parks and marshes, Mr. Cassell’s team would re-engineer the streets in the neighborhood to make the area better able to handle surging waves, creating three variations of roadway. On so-called Level 1 streets, asphalt would be replaced with absorptive materials, like porous concrete, to soak up excess water like a sponge and to irrigate plantings in the street bed. Level 2 streets, planned for stronger surges, would send running water into the marshes at the island’s edges and also into prepositioned ponds meant to collect runoff for dry spells. Level 3 streets — the only ones that might require a shift in the current city grid — would be parallel to the shoreline and designed to drain surging water back into the harbor.
“We weren’t fully going back to nature with our plan,” Mr. Cassell said. “We thought of it more as engineered ecology. But if you look at the history of Manhattan, we have pushed nature off the island and replaced it with man-made infrastructure. What we can do is start to reintegrate things and make the city more durable.”
Red Hook and Gowanus
The architect and landscape designer Kate Orff based her plan to shield the Red Hook and Gowanus neighborhoods of Brooklyn on the outsize powers of the oyster. “The era of big infrastructure is over,” Ms. Orff said. By placing her faith in a palm-size bivalve to reduce the effects of surging storms, Ms. Orff said, she is “blending urbanism and ecology” and also “looking to the past to reimagine the future.”
Red Hook, in particular, was thrashed by Hurricane Sandy as some of the local inlets, like the Buttermilk Channel and Gowanus Bay, spilled into the low-lying area, swamping public housing projects and sending water rushing so high through the streets it occasionally swallowed up cars and bicycles.
Ms. Orff’s proposal., created by a team at her design firm Scape/Landscape Architecture P.L.L.C., envisions a system of artificial reefs in the channel and the bay built out of rocks, shells and fuzzy rope that is intended to nurture the growth of oysters (she calls them “nature’s wave attenuators”).
The Bay Ridge Flats, a stretch of water that sits off the coast of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, was once home to a small archipelago of islands that protected the Brooklyn coastline. The islands have long since disappeared because of dredging, and Ms. Orff would replace them with her oyster-studded barriers, which, over time, would form a sort of “ecological glue” and mitigate onrushing tides, she said.
At the same time, she imagines installing oyster beds along the banks of the Gowanus Canal in a series of what are known as Floating Upweller Systems (Flupsys) — essentially, artificial shellfish nurseries. A powerful fan blows aerated water through a group of eight chambers in which oysters or mussels can be grown. The chambers protect the budding oysters from predators like starfish. Above the Flupsys, Ms. Orff would place a public walkway for joggers and strollers, punctured every so often by hatches that could be lifted to permit a view of the nature below.
“This is infrastructure that we can do now,” she explained. “It’s not something we have to think about and fund with billions of dollars 50 years down the road.”
Oysters have the added benefit of acting as natural water filters — a single one can clean up to 50 gallons of water a day. By being placed in the Gowanus Canal, Ms. Orff hopes, they could further purify what has already been named a federal Superfund site. She wants, by way of her project, to change how we think about infrastructure projects.
“Infrastructure isn’t separate from us, or it shouldn’t be,” Ms. Orff said. “It’s among us, it’s next to us, embedded in our cities and our public spaces.”
A Bridge in Troubled Waters
A few years ago, Lawrence J. Murphy, an engineer in the New York office of the global engineering firm CDM Smith, was asked by the local chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers to propose a way of protecting northern Staten Island from the forces of a Category 3 hurricane. He came up with a plan to build a classic storm-surge barrier across the Arthur Kill, the tidal strait that separates Staten Island from the mainland of New Jersey, designed to act in concert with similar barriers in the East River, the Narrows and the waters near the Rockaway Peninsula.
Staten Island was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, as entire neighborhoods were flooded, a 168-foot water tanker crashed onshore and city officials said that most of the fatalities in the city occurred there. It is arguably New York’s most exposed borough, surrounded not by peaceful rivers but by oceanic channels like the Arthur Kill and, of course, the Atlantic itself.
Mr. Murphy’s concept, created with his partner, Thomas Schoettle, calls for the construction of a damlike structure with suspension towers spanning the Arthur Kill. Tidal gates below the surface would open and close as needed.
According to the Army Corps of Engineers, Category 3 hurricanes (Hurricane Sandy was a Category 1 storm, downgraded by the time it reached New York) would produce surges of slightly more than 14 feet above normal sea levels. Mr. Murphy designed his barrier to protect against “overtopping waves” of an additional 8 feet, for a total height of 22 feet. He also designed a complex system of locks and drawbridges to accommodate the numerous commercial ships that navigate the kill.
Mr. Murphy’s barrier would be run by a trained staff and would operate on emergency power in the event of an electrical failure. Because strong tides pass through the kill, he would also outfit the barrier with tidal generators, which, as an extra benefit, could produce electricity.
Nor did Mr. Murphy ignore the possibilities of public recreation. “The concept design of the Arthur Kill Storm Barrier has been made with a focus on aesthetics to create a destination,” he wrote in his proposal. “The multiuse path can provide bicycling and walking opportunities. Fishing and bird-watching amenities can also be provided.”
Could Oysters Have Helped Us During Hurricane Sandy? - Recipes
About this Episode
Peter Malinowski, Executive Director of the Billion Oyster Project, joins the Essential Podcast to talk about climate change, social engagement, and an ambitious plan to restore oyster beds to New York waters.
The Essential Podcast from S&P Global is dedicated to sharing essential intelligence with those working in and affected by financial markets. Host Nathan Hunt focuses on those issues of immediate importance to global financial markets &ndash macroeconomic trends, the credit cycle, climate risk, energy transition, and global trade &ndash in interviews with subject matter experts from around the world.
Listen and subscribe to this podcast on our Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Deezer, and our podcast page.
- Billion Oyster Project is restoring oyster reefs to New York Harbor in collaboration with New York City communities. Oyster reefs provide habitat for hundreds of species, and can protect the city from storm damage &mdash softening the blow of large waves, reducing flooding, and preventing erosion along the shorelines.
Nathan Hunt: This is The Essential Podcast from S&P Global. My name is Nathan Hunt. Let us be optimists for a minute. Let us assume that the Paris Climate Accords are successful in their attempt to limit global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius. Let us assume electric cars and carbon capture and a speedy end of fossil fuels- our optimistic scenario only mitigates the effects of global climate change. Sea levels will still rise. Storms will become more frequent and more violent.
Pete Malinowski: We think of oyster reefs as part of an integrated nature-based solution to climate change or to more intense storms. On their own that are going to protect New York City from a storm like Hurricane Sandy, but together with dune systems and other interventions, you create a solution that can rise with rising water levels, is resilient and can continue to protect the city for as long as it's there.
Nathan Hunt: Would you believe the humble oyster can keep rising seas and storms from pummeling coastal communities? That is the topic I'm hoping to address with my guest today.
Pete Malinowski: Hi, my name is Pete Malinowski and I'm the executive director at Billion Oyster Project.
Nathan Hunt: Pete, thank you for joining me on the podcast.
Pete Malinowski: Thanks so much for having me Nathan.
Nathan Hunt: So, a billion oysters. Why is that a good idea?
Pete Malinowski: You know, we like to think there's lots of reasons why it's a good idea. It's important to note that New York Harbor used to have trillions and trillions of oysters, you know, 200,000 acres of oyster reef in New York Harbor alone, and we ate them all. And so one good reason to restore them is because they used to be there. But those oyster reefs in pre-colonial times, they perform a number of ecosystem services that we want to restore back to the Harbor. So oyster reefs, filter the water, provide food and habitat for hundreds of other animals, they stabilize the bottom and they, as you referenced earlier, can play a role in protecting the shoreline from waves and extreme weather events. Without the oysters the Harbor is kind of like a 200,000-acre forest that's had all of the trees removed. So if the Harbor's without its primary landscape, it's keystone species, it's dominant habitat type. And as a result, the fish and crabs have nowhere to hide and nothing to eat. And there's nothing to hold the sediment in place on the bottom, nothing to protect the shores, and so we're working to restore the oyster reefs to New York Harbor.
Nathan Hunt: Is this like an underwater rewilding project?
Pete Malinowski: Totally. That's a great way to look at it: underwater rewilding. You know, there's not much of New York City that can be rewilded. Whereas the Harbor is the same size as the land area of New York City and has very little competing uses for most of it. So there's an enormous amount of open unused space in New York Harbor.
Nathan Hunt: You had mentioned the role that oysters play in cleaning the water. What kind of contaminants can oysters removed from the water?
Pete Malinowski: Our oysters clean the water in two very different ways. Oysters through their feeding and they're removing suspended solids and nitrogen pollution from the hardware. Nitrogen pollution is the primary pollutant in New York Harbor, and in most urban estuaries, it comes from our treated household wastewater and from farms upstate, they play a role in improving water quality in that way. But the much bigger impact that our wasters have on water quality in New York Harbor is by engaging New Yorkers in the work of restoring oysters to New York Harbor we build awareness and affinity for the resource, and new Yorkers are surprised to learn that every time it rains hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated household wastewater goes out into the Harbor and you know, all the street trash and everything else, and so the more New Yorkers are turned on to the issues facing water quality in the Harbor, the more that they will act to support clean water and prevent pollution from coming from the land, into the water. And that long-term picture is going to be a much more profound impact on water quality than what the oysters can directly do through their feeding.
Nathan Hunt: This is something I find absolutely fascinating about the Billion Oyster Project, which is on the one hand, there are these clear environmental benefits, cleaner water, the stability, the protection from storm surges. And on the other hand, there's this amazing educational component of this, where you're not just taking the hardcore environmentalist community and educating them about the benefits of oysters. You're really trying to create both a broad and a deep understanding about the importance of New York Harbor for the environment of New York City. Can you tell us a little bit about those educational efforts you've made?
Pete Malinowski: You know, we learned pretty early on that if we were to be successful in restoring a billion oysters, we would need everybody. New York city has this incredible talent pool, almost 9 million people living on or near this degraded natural system, so we design our programs to engage New Yorkers from different walks of life. So we have volunteer programs on Governor's Island, we do the shell collection program is a really neat way to engage diners at restaurants and that whole industry, we have education programs at schools, or we develop curricula and do professional development to train teachers, to shift what they're teaching in their math and science classes to focus more on oyster restoration and research in New York Harbor, and we provide those schools with small cages with live oysters in them. We call them oyster research stations that are sort of a remote field lab for the school. And then we worked directly with the New York Harbor school on Governor's Island, which is a career in tech ed 9-2, you know, normal high school where students specialize in marine fields. And all of those kind of varied ways to engage New Yorkers and public school students were fundamentally the highest aspiration, a Billion Oyster Project is to change how New York City interacts with the natural environment here in town. We believe that by engaging New Yorkers in the work of improving New York Harbor, through restoring a billion oysters, we can change the perception of the Harbor. We can elevate the Harbor and the collective consciousness of the city to a place New Yorkers work to preserve, protect, and you know, care about.
Nathan Hunt: Another thing I find really exciting is that I can, as a person who enjoys eating oysters, eat oysters with pride. I can, I can eat them conscientiously by eating them at one of the restaurants that you partner with in order to collect used oyster shells. Tell me a little bit about why you're collecting oyster shells.
Pete Malinowski: Oysters have a lifecycle that's similar to Caterpillar, they have two distinct morphological phases where they're larvae and they swim around for the first few weeks of their lives, and then they attach to a hard substrate, grow their shells and turn into what you and I know as oysters. That transition from their larval period to their juvenile stage, they're very vulnerable at that time and they need a hard substrate. What we did when we removed all of the oyster reefs from New York harbors, is we removed all that substrate. So there's no, except on the edges, there's no hard structure for those oyster larvae to find. So the shell collection program is a way to get shell back into the Harbor and we use those shells for constructing our reefs. We get the larvae to attach to the shells and then restore them to the Harbor. It's a key ingredient in our restoration process and the only place to get oyster shells really is from restaurants. During normal time, we're able to collect almost 10,000 pounds of shell a week from 80 restaurants. 10,000 pounds of shell is a lot of shell and that without the shell collection program would all be in black plastic bags on dump trucks going to West Virginia to be put in the landfill. So we're very proud to be able to get that out of the waste stream and put it to a good use.
Nathan Hunt: And so why can I always eat oysters with pride and conscientiously?
Pete Malinowski: My understanding is that the biggest impact we all have on the natural environment is through our diet. It's far more carbon emissions from food than from cars, for example. So by changing what you eat, you can have a much bigger, positive impact on the environment than by getting a fuel efficient car. Almost all types of food production have negative impacts on the environment associated with that production of food. Farm shellfish is one of the very few examples where the net impact on the natural world is a positive. 90% of oysters that you see at restaurants are farmed and an oyster farm provides all the same ecosystem services that our oyster reefs do, and they also are providing food. And the only reason that farm exists is because people like you are buying oysters at restaurants. And so by buying oysters, by eating oysters, you are supporting just about the only type of restorative protein production that exists, where you're actually allowing people to make their living by improving the condition of the natural world instead of degrading it.
Nathan Hunt: Pete, I lived in New York during Hurricane Sandy. So I remember the sky lighting up as the power station on the east side of Manhattan blew. And I definitely remember the pond that was East Houston Street. Oysters can't keep sea levels from rising and they can't keep hurricanes from heading with increasing frequency. So what can oysters do about sea level rise?
Pete Malinowski: You know, oyster reefs are not going to keep the storm surge out or wouldn't have prevented Hurricane Sandy from doing the damage that it did. But if you look back in time to when New York Harbor was filled with oyster reefs, what you see is when there are big storm events, the waves don't crash as violently on shore. And so you can look at the sediment record in places like Staten Island and you can see when the oyster reefs were removed, because then every time there's a big storm, there's this big layer of Harbor sediment that comes on to land. A Harbor full of oysters is going to have, if an event like Hurricane Sandy happened again, you'd still get the storm surge and still get the flooding, but you wouldn't get damage caused by waves. So we think of oyster reefs as part of an integrated nature-based solution to climate change or to more intense storms. On their own, they're not going to protect New York City from a storm like Hurricane Sandy, but together with dune systems and other interventions, you create a solution that can rise with rising water levels is resilient and can continue to protect the city for as long as it's there.
Nathan Hunt: Are you personally more drawn to the natural methods of mitigating the effects of sea level rise, like oyster reefs or marshlands or dunes, as opposed to say the Dutch model of just building big sea gates?
Pete Malinowski: Yes. Short answer, yes. But I think in a place like New York City, there has to be a combination of solutions. The scale of the intervention that's necessary to protect New York City from a event like Hurricane Sandy is an enormous, it's much bigger than any other civil works project that's ever happened in the city and so just thinking about that and thinking about the variety of coastline and the diversity of coastline of the 521 miles of coastline in New York City, you know, there's, there has to be different solutions. So it may make sense in some places to have walls that keep the water out and, and others to have nature-based solutions. I think any full solution that doesn't rely heavily on nature-based solutions is going to be short-lived. The advantage of nature-based solutions that they're designed to rise with rising water levels or move with changing coastlines. I think for the long-term success and protection of New York City, there needs to be some reliance on natural solutions.
Nathan Hunt: As a New Yorker, I am naturally most interested in the Billion Oyster Project, and as I've mentioned to you before, have followed your work for a long time. But there are a number of efforts like yours in for example, the Chesapeake Bay in Southern Florida and on the West Coast as well. I'm wondering how much coordination is there between these groups? Do you communicate with these other teams that are also looking to reintroduce oyster habitat?
Pete Malinowski: Yes. There are a number of national and international conferences that exist for, to have those conversations more formally and then there's definitely open dialogue just in New York State alone. We have an organizing body for all the different shell collection programs. So there's definitely a lot of information shared and coordination in that sense between different projects and there are always to restoration projects in most coastal states. There's always an opportunity for more of that. It's hard to pick your head up out of the sand and look around from time to time.
Nathan Hunt: So, where do you get your funding?
Pete Malinowski: Our budget is divided basically in three ways. Not exactly, but pretty close between government grants, the government grants are from the National Science Foundation, the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery, which is directly related to Sandy recovery. Done work for the City, City DEP and the Department of Youth and Community Development. Private foundations, private foundations are sort of all over the map. And then individuals at events, we have donors who support our work and then we have one awesome event a year, when we can have events where we have 50 different oyster farms and 1200 people, live music, it's a fun event that our Billion Oyster party that we haven't been able to have in a little while now, we're looking forward to September and hoping that we can do it then.
Nathan Hunt: When I think about your model, which is a combination of environmental action and local education, it seems like a natural for a social impact bonds that have gotten so popular in England, where it's a public private partnership where the public sector, the government, guarantees the funding for successful projects, but individual investors take the financial risk in funding, certain projects, have you guys looked at all at that kind of funding?
Pete Malinowski: We have not. And I agree that, you know, it solves a key problem and how we raise money, which is that, you know, we're never planning to eat the oysters. You know, that's not an impact investment situation where you can hope to have a return on your investment. You know, without that type of intervention.
Nathan Hunt: Financial markets are increasingly drawn to investment in social impact bonds, green bonds. There are a huge number of organizations doing important work. One of the challenges for the people putting together these bonds is that they can't scale up their efforts. So, I guess my question for you would be could the Billion Oyster Projects scale up if your funding was to say double or triple?
Pete Malinowski: That's the easiest question you've asked so far. Absolutely. You know, we're restoring a billion oysters, or a hundred acres of oyster reef to a system that used to have 220,000 acres. We're working with a hundred public schools in a system that has 1,700 public schools. We train 50 teachers a year and there are 117,000 public school teachers in New York City. So just in New York City alone, there's enormous room for growth in the work that we do. Plus, if you look at how our central thesis is all about the best way to improve outcomes for public school students and for the natural environment is to train students to restore the environment. That's pretty unique in the environmental community, that commitment to public education as a tool for environmental restoration and step something that could be applied anywhere people live on or near a degraded natural system, which is everywhere people live. There's a great potential as we refine our model here in New York City to think also outside of the city and what the implications are for growing this model. The sky's the limit, as far as where we can take this if we had the capital to make that happen.
Nathan Hunt: Pete, thank you for joining me on the podcast today.
Pete Malinowski: A central part of our effort is getting the word out and that's key, and so by showing your interest and by this conversation that we're having right now, is a key step for us in getting the word out. So thank you for helping us restore a billion oysters to New York Harbor.
Nathan Hunt: The Essential Podcast is produced by Molly Mintz with assistance from Kurt Burger and Lundon Lafci. At S&P Global, we accelerate progress in the world by providing intelligence that is essential for companies, governments, and individuals to make decisions with conviction. This is Nathan Hunt from my home studio, high above Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Thank you for listening.
The Essential Podcast is edited and produced by Molly Mintz.
As Lobsters Dwindle in Long Island Sound, Oysters Thrive
To see some of Connecticut’s most industrious food producers, you will need to move beyond its many orchards and cornfields and head past the shore. Beneath the briny waters along the rocky coast and sandy shoals of Long Island Sound, you will find a thriving oyster industry.
Whether roasted over a fire, served raw on the half shell or rendered as Rockefellers, oysters have been a part of the region’s cuisine for generations. But while other locally sourced staples of the sea — like cod, salmon, shad and lobsters — have dwindled, the state’s oyster industry still thrives. Tight regulations, over matters like water quality, harvest size and refrigeration, have helped sustain the industry, as has the use of better farming techniques.
Oysters begin life as larvae, developing a shell as they swim and feed. Eventually, the tiny mollusks sink, pulled down by the weight of their growing shells, and stick to rocks and shells along the sea bottom.
Norwalk-based Norm Bloom and Son, a third-generation oyster company on the Connecticut coast, tries to entice those larva to its properties by covering its seabeds with clean, recycled shells. “By providing that hard surface, we’re giving them something to attach to,” said Jimmy Bloom, who works with Norman, his father, and Jeanne, his sister. “If they survive that first winter, we’ll move them out to a growing area.” Another move, a year after that, follows, and in three years the oysters will be ready for sale.
Theoretically, at least. “Some years we’ve planted a whole load of shells and gotten nothing in return,” Mr. Bloom said.
For more predictable results, Noank Aquaculture Cooperative of Southold, on Long Island, and Groton operates an oyster hatchery. “That adds more regularity to the process than natural spawn oysters,” said Jim Markow, president of the co-op. Even so, every year about 80 percent of the 10 million to 15 million larvae the hatchery processes get lost at sea.
“We keep trying to improve on that, but once they’re out on their own, there are storms, predators, all kinds of stuff eating them,” said Mr. Markow, who also is an owner of Aeros Cultured Oyster Company, in Noank and Southold.
Charles Island Oyster Farm was founded in 2010, just in time to lose a million oysters in 2011 when Tropical Storm Irene swept across its 30-acre plot off Milford. It lost double that amount a year later when Hurricane Sandy hit.
“That’s when we put down cages,” Charles Viens, the farm’s owner, said. “Now, if there’s a storm, my oysters won’t wash up on the beach.” Growing oysters in cages also makes it harder for predators like sea stars and drill snails to get to them.
Charles Island operates a nursery in an estuary in Bridgeport, where for three years it has annually processed two million to three million oysters. The oysters more than double in size there — to about an inch long — in two to three months before being transferred to the Milford site. Of the three million oysters now on their way to the nursery, Mr. Viens said, “They can fit into the back of a van now, but in two years we’ll need four tractor-trailers.”
While climate change may have led lobsters to leave Long Island Sound for cooler waters, few farmers worry about oysters’ following suit. “This is a species that has been on the planet for millions of years, with a range that extends from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Maritimes,” Steve Plant, the owner of Connecticut Cultured Oysters in Groton, said.
After more than a decade working in finance, Mr. Plant left Wall Street, drawn to oysters by their sales potential. “When they closed the Grand Banks to cod fishing, I realized that eventually we’re going to have to start growing all this stuff,” he said. Mr. Plant nurses his hatchery-raised oysters in a shallow estuary before moving them out to deeper waters. “Handling the seed is a lot of work,” Mr. Plant said. “They’re competitive little rascals, so you have to remove the larger ones first, so the little ones have a chance to thrive, too.”
Last year, Connecticut Cultured Oysters sold 320,000 oysters, up 30 percent from the year before. “It’s ungodly how many oysters you can put on an acre,” Mr. Plant said of his 15-acre farm’s capacity.
Thimble Island Oyster Company of Branford is so small it forgoes office space, operating instead out of the pickup truck of the owner, Bren Smith, and out of Mookie, his boat. “It’s so expensive to get property on land, and as your overhead goes up, you’re more in peril of failure,” he said.
A lifelong fisherman, Mr. Smith switched to farming oysters in 2003, only to suffer a 90 percent crop loss because of Irene and Sandy. “Everything got buried by an incredible amount of mud,” he said.
Since then, and aided by a Kickstarter campaign, Thimble Island has switched to cage-raised oysters and diversified to mussels, scallops and kelp. With both kelp and bay scallops ready for harvest in less than six months, and mussels requiring about half the time that oysters do, Thimble Island manages to spread its risks, just as land-based farmers strive to do.
This form of aquaculture replenishes the environment, rather than degrading it. “Oysters are these incredible engines of sustainability,” Mr. Smith said. “They filter 50 gallons of water a day and pull nitrogen from the water, all with zero input of freshwater, fertilizers and animal feed.”
Meet the Man Bringing One Billion Oysters to NYC
Pete Malinowksi founded the Billion Oyster Project to restore New York Harbor. Learn how he's helping NYC, one oyster shell at a time.
American Food Hero 2019: Pete Malinowski
Who he is: Executive Director, The Billion Oyster Project
What he&aposs doing: Restoring healthy waterways
A century ago, nearly half of the world&aposs oysters came from New York Harbor. They were a staple in the city-vendors sold them from rolling carts long before they hawked hot dogs or pretzels. But greed (in the early 1900s, more than a billion oysters a year were pulled from the water) and rampant pollution put an end to that. The consequences were both epicurean and environmental.
Oysters had been an essential part of the estuary&aposs ecosystem. They&aposre famous for their ability to filter water, extracting nitrogen-a pollutant that largely comes from fertilizer runoff and can lead to marine "dead zones"-and using that nitrogen for food and to build their shells. Just one oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water each day. And the reefs the bivalves create by aggregating together provide habitat for a multitude of underwater species, and help protect the coastline from flooding and erosion by acting as a buffer against waves from strong storms.
Pete Malinowski wants to take us back to the old days. In 2014, he launched the Billion Oyster Project with the goal of restoring the harbor&aposs protective reefs and water quality. "New York City is one of the most vulnerable places in the country because of climate change. Ten million people live here and we&aposre surrounded by water that&aposs right at our doorstep," says Malinowski, who grew up on an oyster farm on Fishers Island, in Long Island Sound. "If we are to continue living on this planet, we have to completely change how we interact with the natural world. We can no longer live separate from nature. Nature is here, and fighting back."
The nonprofit collects oyster shells from local restaurants-about half a million of them a week, most of which would be destined for landfills-and uses them to provide temporary homes for baby oysters in its hatchery. One to two dozen of these spats attach to a single half shell by a sticky "foot," where they mature until they grow shells of their own and can be placed in the harbor. The shells themselves are also used to build reefs in New York Harbor to shelter the young oysters (and the shoreline). With the help of nearly 8,000 students from schools in all five boroughs and over 1,000 adult volunteers, 30 million oysters have been restored to the harbor. To date, more than 1.2 million pounds of shells have been up-cycled and the new oysters have filtered an estimated 19.7 trillion gallons of water, removing literally tons of harmful nitrogen.
For Malinowski, the biggest obstacle to reaching the billion mark, surprisingly, is getting permits to plant the oysters. (Health officials worry that someone will eat one from the still-sullied water and get sick.) But in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when areas of New York suffered severe flooding, public officials are starting to see the wisdom of having oysters back in their waters. "It&aposs about restoring the natural ecosystem, but also about making the harbor part of the culture of New York City again," says Malinowski. "We may never get to where we were 500 years ago. But we&aposre bringing them back."
An Oyster in the Storm
DOWN here at the end of Manhattan, on the border between evacuation zones B and C, I’m prepared, mostly. My bathtub is full of water, as is every container I own. My flashlights are battery-ed up, the pantry is crammed with canned goods and I even roasted a pork shoulder that I plan to gnaw on in the darkness if ConEd shuts down the power.
But as I confidently tick off all the things that Governor Andrew M. Cuomo recommends for my defense as Hurricane Sandy bears down on me, I find I’m desperately missing one thing.
I wish I had some oysters.
I’m not talking about oysters to eat — although a dozen would be nice to go with that leftover bottle of Champagne that I really should drink if the fridge goes off. I’m talking about the oysters that once protected New Yorkers from storm surges, a bivalve population that numbered in the trillions and that played a critical role in stabilizing the shoreline from Washington to Boston.
Crassostrea virginica, the American oyster, the same one that we eat on the half shell, is endemic to New York Harbor. Which isn’t surprising: the best place for oysters is the margin between saltwater and freshwater, where river meets sea. Our harbor is chock-a-block with such places. Myriad rivers and streams, not just the Hudson and the East, but the Raritan, the Passaic, the Kill Van Kull, the Arthur Kill — the list goes on and on — flow into the upper and lower bay of the harbor, bringing nutrients from deep inland and distributing them throughout the water column.
Until European colonists arrived, oysters took advantage of the spectacular estuarine algae blooms that resulted from all these nutrients and built themselves a kingdom. Generation after generation of oyster larvae rooted themselves on layers of mature oyster shells for more than 7,000 years until enormous underwater reefs were built up around nearly every shore of greater New York.
Just as corals protect tropical islands, these oyster beds created undulation and contour on the harbor bottom that broke up wave action before it could pound the shore with its full force. Beds closer to shore clarified the water through their assiduous filtration (a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day) this allowed marsh grasses to grow, which in turn held the shores together with their extensive root structure.
But 400 years of poor behavior on the part of humans have ruined all that. As Mark Kurlansky details in his fine book “The Big Oyster,” during their first 300 years on these shores colonists nearly ate the wild creatures out of existence. We mined the natural beds throughout the waterways of greater New York and burned them down for lime or crushed them up for road beds.
Once we’d hurled all that against the wild New York oyster, baymen switched to farming oysters. But soon New Yorkers ruined that too. Rudimentary sewer systems dumped typhoid- and cholera-carrying bacteria onto the beds of Jamaica Bay. Large industries dumped tons of pollutants like PCBs and heavy metals like chromium into the Hudson and Raritan Rivers, rendering shellfish from those beds inedible. By the late 1930s, oysters in New York and all the benefits they brought were finished.
Fortunately, the New York oyster is making something of a comeback. Ever since the Clean Water Act was passed in the 1970s, the harbor’s waters have been getting cleaner, and there is now enough dissolved oxygen in our waterways to support oyster life. In the last 10 years, limited sets of natural oyster larvae occurred in several different waterways that make up the Greater New York Bight.
Alongside nature’s efforts, a consortium of human-run organizations that include the Hudson River Foundation, New York-New Jersey Bay Keeper, the Harbor School and even the Army Corps of Engineers have worked together to put out a handful of test reefs throughout the Bight.
Yes, there have been some setbacks. New Jersey’s state Department of Environmental Protection actually demanded that a test reef from the nearby bay at Keyport be removed for fear that people might poach those test oysters and eat them. But the program has persisted, even in New Jersey. In 2011 the Navy offered its pier at Naval Weapons Station Earle, near Sandy Hook, as a new place in New Jersey to get oysters going.
Will all of these attempts to get oysters back in New York City have any effect in defending us against Sandy? Surely not. The oyster kingdom is gone, and what we have now are a few struggling refugees just trying to get a foothold in their old territory.
But what is fairly certain is that storms like Sandy are going to grow stronger and more frequent, and our shorelines will become more vulnerable. For the present storm, all we could do was stock up on canned goods and fill up our bathtubs. But for the storms to come, we’d better start planting a lot more oysters.