Oysters!

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safe harvesting of harbor oysters was long since over, and New York’s role as a commercial and industrial port had superseded the local oyster beds.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: