A view of one of the NYC Parks Department's oyster bed sites, reintroducing oysters to the bottom of the harbor.

A view of one of the NYC Parks Department’s oys­ter bed sites near the Bronx River, rein­tro­duc­ing oys­ters to the city’s estu­ar­ies. (Pho­to: Katie Con­rad)

 “In Dutch and Eng­lish days, immense beds of oys­ters grew in the har­bor. They bor­dered the shores of Brook­lyn and Queens, and they encir­cled Man­hat­tan, Staten Island, and the islands in the Upper Bay; to the Dutch, Ellis Island was Oys­ter Island and Bedloe’s Island was Great Oys­ter Island. One chain of beds extend­ed from Sandy Hook straight across the har­bor and up the Hud­son to Ossin­ing. The Dutch and the Eng­lish were, as they still are, glut­to­nous oys­ter eaters. By the end of the eigh­teen­th cen­tu­ry, all but the deep­est of the beds had been stripped. Oys­ters, until then among the cheap­est of foods, grad­u­al­ly became expen­sive. In the eigh­teen-twen­ties, a group of Staten Island shipown­ers began to buy imma­ture oys­ters by the schooner-load in oth­er local­i­ties and bring them to New York and bed them in the har­bor until they got their growth, when they were tonged up and shipped to the whole­sale oys­ter mar­ket in Man­hat­tan, to cities in the Mid­dle West, and to Lon­don, where they were prized…”

– Joseph Mitchell, “The Bot­tom of the Har­bor” (orig­i­nal­ly in the New York­er, 1/6/51)

Oys­ters are part of the past and future New York City; Joseph Mitchell’s famous essay (excerpt­ed above) speaks of the life of the har­bor in the recent past, and the dis­tant past. Oys­ters were a main­stay of the ear­ly Dutch set­tlers, and before them, of the Lenape, the orig­i­nal inhab­i­tants of the five bor­oughs. By the time Mitchell wrote, in 1951, safe har­vest­ing of har­bor oys­ters was long since over, and New York’s role as a com­mer­cial and indus­tri­al port had super­seded the local oys­ter beds.

In the ear­ly 21st cen­tu­ry, heavy indus­try has waned, reg­u­la­tion has made the water­ways much clean­er, sea life has returned and oys­ter reefs are now at the cen­ter of many ecosys­tem restora­tion ini­tia­tives in New York Har­bor, includ­ing the Bil­lion Oys­ter Project and the post-Sandy Rebuild by Design win­ning entry “Liv­ing Break­wa­ters,” which plans oys­ter reefs as storm surge break­wa­ters for Staten Island. Oys­ter reefs may return to the har­bor in a new role as bar­ri­er pro­tec­tion from larg­er storms brought on by cli­mate change.

In 2011 and 2012, City Atlas writer and biol­o­gist Katie Con­rad worked as a restora­tion research assis­tant with the Natu­ral Resources Group of the NYC Parks Depart­ment.

The pho­tos below are a visu­al jour­nal of her work on a Parks Depart­ment project to bring oys­ters to the East River. Oys­ters are habi­tat-cre­ators; they can be seed­ed on piles of oys­ter shells, and as they build addi­tion­al lay­ers of shell, provide a sea-bot­tom habi­tat for fish and oth­er marine life. Katie now works with the US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice on sim­i­lar marine restora­tion projects.

(All pho­tos and cap­tions by Katie Con­rad, except for the last image in the series.)

We put out bags filled with oyster shell at LaGuardia airport to see if they would attract any oyster spat, which are settling oyster larvae. The only thing that it attracted was a bunch of tunicates, also called sea grapes (for their similarity in appearance but not taste to grapes) and sea squirts (for their ability to squirt water up to 2 feet).

We put out bags filled with oys­ter shell at LaGuardia air­port to see if they would attract any oys­ter spat, which are set­tling oys­ter lar­vae. The only thing that it attract­ed was a bunch of tuni­cates, also called sea grapes (for their sim­i­lar­i­ty in appear­ance but not taste to grapes) and sea squirts (for their abil­i­ty to squirt water up to 2 feet).

View of of the oyster reef from the shore located off of Soundview Park at the mouth of the Bronx River. Across the way you can see Hunt's Point.

View of the oys­ter reef from the shore locat­ed off of Sound­view Park at the mouth of the Bronx River. Across the way you can see Hunt’s Point.


The spat collectors were attached to a rope that weighed down with a rock that served as an anchor. The rope was so covered with tunicates and other encrusting organisms that it was difficult to grasp.

The spat col­lec­tors were attached to a rope weighed down with a rock that served as an anchor. The rope was so cov­ered with tuni­cates and oth­er encrust­ing organ­isms that it was dif­fi­cult to grasp.

Oyster spat! An oyster spat is a recently settled oyster. We haven't found very many on the oyster reef. (9/3/2011)

Oys­ter spat! An oys­ter spat is a recent­ly set­tled oys­ter. We haven’t found very many on the oys­ter reef.

Monitoring basket that got tipped over by Hurricane Irene.

Mon­i­tor­ing bas­ket that got tipped over by Hur­ri­cane Irene.

I got help from USGS Wildlife Services who is also an expert rock climber to help me tie the bags of shell to the rope.

I got help from a col­league from US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vices — who is also an expert rock climber — to help me tie the bags of shell to the rope.

Close up of the oyster reef.

Close up of the oys­ter reef.

Blue crabs mating on the oyster reef. Oysters are habitat engineers, they create habitat for other estuary organisms, like these crabs.

Blue crabs mat­ing on the oys­ter reef. Oys­ters are habi­tat engi­neers, they cre­ate habi­tat for oth­er estu­ary organ­isms, like the­se crabs.

The big pile of shell.

The big pile of shell. We sink bags of this oys­ter shell as a base for spat that will grow into new oys­ters.


During oyster monitoring at Gandy's Beach Preserve, USFWS and project partners were surprised to find so many naturally recruited oysters at one of their potential restoration sites.

Dur­ing oys­ter mon­i­tor­ing at Gandy’s Beach Pre­serve, USFWS and project part­ners were sur­prised to find so many nat­u­ral­ly recruit­ed oys­ters at one of their poten­tial restora­tion sites. (Pho­to: cour­tesy of US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice.) Below: a trail­er for SHELLSHOCKED, a film by Emi­ly Driscoll about restora­tion projects in New York Har­bor:



Read a deep dive about New York oys­ter restora­tion, from the stand­point of Brook­lyn: via Bklynr

And last­ly, here’s an oys­ter gar­den­ing man­u­al from the Bil­lion Oys­ter Project that explains many of the steps shown in Katie Conrad’s pho­tos above: