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How the Mighty Oyster Could Revive New York’s Harbor

The surprise discovery of a giant oyster under Pier 40 has sparked a wave of optimism among conservationists, who want a billion oysters to bloom in the bay

Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

In July 2018, a diver working with a construction crew under Pier 40 in New York City discovered an astonishingly large oyster glued to an underwater piling. Knowing that the pilings were about to be power-washed and encased in concrete, he managed to pry it loose. It would have died if he had let it drift to the river bed, so he carried it to The River Project, a group that is working to restore the Hudson River Estuary.

The oyster weighed 1.9 pounds, and measured 8.7 inches long. “We named it Big,” says Cathy Drew, the executive director of The River Project, which she founded in 1986. Big is certainly very large, and the biggest oyster seen in the harbor for 100 years. But it’s also smaller than the foot-long oysters that once prevailed in New York Harbor.

The River Project is keeping Big alive in a little cage near where it was found. “We can only assume that there are more like that because there’s never just one of something, it seems,” says Drew. “We hope there are a lot more around.”

In 1609, Henry Hudson was exploring the Atlantic coastline looking for a river to China. Sailing northward around a sandy, narrow peninsula, he came into the shallow waterways of a peculiar bay.

The estuary where Hudson found himself had miles of sprawling oyster beds tucked into the many coves of its coastline. It was, according to some accounts, home to half the world’s oysters. The native Lenape people ate copious quantities, and Hudson needed only reach into the warm, brackish waters for his first taste of New York oysters.

In 1835, Thomas Downing was prowling what was, by then, a bustling New York Harbor, looking for deals on the best oysters. On a clear night, he rowed out on the dark water in a rented skiff, intercepted a schooner, and boarded it. The oyster captains knew Downing, and when he rowed out to them at night, they would usually sell him the finest of their catch.

Downing was one of the most respected black men in pre-Civil War New York. He ran the city’s most celebrated oyster cellar in the basement of 5 Broad Street. Downing’s, like other oyster cellars, was marked by a red light over dank sidewalk steps, though less seedy than the cellar bars farther uptown. Behind the long counter, a row of shuckers opened oysters, their movements like clockwork. Knives flashed. Shells yawned.

Downing’s had a reputation for excellent, fat oysters: raw, fried, and stewed. It was a place where oysters were eaten and deals were made, where oyster captains were treated as well as leading businessmen and politicians. This was, Mark Kurlansky writes in his 2006 history of New York City, “one of the few moments in culinary history when a single food, served in more or less the same preparations, was common place for all socioeconomic levels.”

The rich, in brick houses with a view of the harbor, roasted oysters in cozy fireplaces, or attended expensive banquets at Delmonico’s. There, to start their feast, they were served oysters béchamel.

Even so, the oyster remained a cheap source of food and available means of income for the poor; it was egalitarian.

“It’s a very remarkable circumstance, sir,” said Sam in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, “that poverty and oysters always seem to go together.” And he was quite right. Street carts or dilapidated little shacks sold oysters at a penny a piece. Oyster stew was ten cents. A poor family, short of money and in search of dinner, could wade out and gather oysters.

In 1898, with a population of 2.5 million, the fast-growing metropolis became the second largest city in the Western world, after London. New York was eating as many as a million oysters a day. In the face of industrialization, steam power fishing, and the excessive consumption of guzzling Victorians, the oyster stock was exhausted and getting worse.

By 1910, the oyster beds in New York Harbor were all but ruined. Oysters, a reflection of the quality of water in which they live, showed the sea had become a dumping ground. The waters of the harbor were fouled with sewage and discharges from city factories. An outcry grew over what the New York Times called “sewage fed oysters.”

New Yorkers had killed their estuary.

Oysters filter and clean water as they eat. Opening and closing their shells to pump in water and absorb nutrients, they also take in whatever contaminants are in the water. Under normal conditions, between 20 and 50 gallons of seawater move through a single oyster every day; as Kurlansky wrote, “The original oyster population of New York Harbor was capable of filtering all of the water in the harbor in a matter of days.”

There are other benefits, too. Oysters support biodiversity by providing food and shelter for other marine creatures. In an era of rising sea temperatures and destructive hurricanes, oysters can provide natural breakwaters to attenuate wave energy.

Oysters, with their glorious history, are one of New York’s best chances at restoring their harbor.

Conservationists now say it took too long to understand that the best thing to do with oyster shells is to dump them back into the sea. Oysters build their shells using the calcium carbonate, or lime, which they extract from other shells in the water. The sea breaks down the shells and the oysters absorbs the lime. No new lime, no new oysters. Knowing this, and inspired by the Oyster Recovery Partnership in Chesapeake Bay, the Billion Oyster Project collects discarded shells from more than 70 restaurants across New York City.

The Billion Oyster Project, as its name suggests, aims to restore a billion live oysters to New York Harbor by 2030. It has so far had success: more than a million pounds of oyster shells have been diverted from the garbage and put into the harbor.

The developing oyster reefs are not to be eaten, they’re to help repair the ecosystem. The shells are trucked to the Project’s hatchery at the New York Harbor School on Governors Island. Once the student-grown larvae anchor themselves to the shells, divers transplant them to reef sites around the city. Depending on the size, one reclaimed shell can house ten to twenty new oysters.

“I call for conscious coastal living: basically that the people that move to, or live on, the coast understand and appreciate what the responsibilities and challenges of doing that are,” says Kevin Joseph, founder of New York Oyster Week, which works with the Billion Oyster Project. “There are ecosystems there that are fragile and diverse.” Everything comes back to the coastline, to the marsh, to the estuary.

“We have to build responsibly and live responsibly and consciously in those places.” Joseph, like his above-mentioned colleagues, is working to bring awareness at home, in cities across the U.S., and abroad.

Oysters, with their glorious history, are one of New York’s best chances at restoring their harbor. They’re one of the most sustainable things to eat, and certainly the most sustainable animal to come from the sea. We should be eating more oysters, and lots of them.

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