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Oysters are waking up in New York City

HOST 1: Springtime means the birds are chirping and tulips are opening. And deep under the swampy muck in New York’s waters, oysters are waking up. HOST 2: These small animals do a big service to the environment. They filter billions of gallons of water each day. And soon, there could be more of them in the New York New Jersey Harbor. Pola Lem started her oyster journey on Long Island.

AMBI: Driving. [Run under.]

LEM: The road to Great Atlantic Shellfish Farms takes me out of East Islip and along Bayview Avenue, through quiet houses and past the marina. l ignore the Do Not Enter signs and drive through a forest of tall reeds. The pavement turns to gravel.

AMBI: Wind. [Bring up.]

Minutes later, I wind up at a small blue hut at the water’s edge. This is the largest shellfish hatchery on the South shore of Long Island. Doug Winter owns the place.

WINTER: Got your boots?

There are dozens of cages next to the building. It’s windy, and spray off the Great South Bay hits us as we talk.

WINTER: This bay used to be the biggest oyster producing spot in the country.

WINTER: That’s basically what we’re bringing back.

AMBI: Background noise. [Fade, run under.]

Winter took over the hatchery from the city three years ago. It’s a commercial hatchery now. Marty Byrnes, the manager, has been here since the late 1980s. In his office, the windowsills are covered with shells.

BYRNES: This used to be a bathhouse the town was gonna destroy. So I started knockin’ down walls and buildin’ a hatchery.

The town of Islip hired him. His job? To rebuild the decimated shellfish population.

BYRNES: The bay was over-harvested so, when you run down the population so much, mother nature can’t keep up.

The Bay is 45 miles long, tucked under the bottom fin of Long Island’s fishlike profile. Up until the 1920s, the oyster business here thrived. In fact, the bay is home to the original Bluepoint.

BYRNES: The Bluepoint’s a famous oyster. You can look on the menu and see a Bluepoint oyster, but unless it’s grown in Great South Bay, it’s not a Bluepoint.

Every year this hatchery grows up to 40 million baby oysters. Byrnes and his crew scatter them in the bay as part of environmental efforts to bring their levels up.

BYRNES: Yeah. We broadcast ‘em. Throw ‘em out by hand. 40 million. Takes days and days and days.

One of Byrnes’s team—

AMBI: Door open.

—takes me to where the oysters begin their lives.

BIETMAN: These black dots? Those are 100s and 1000s of oysters.

AMBI: Water dripping. [Run under.]

Matt Bietman leads the way. In this large room, the baby oysters are nestled in rows of long metal troughs. Coils of tubes bring algae and sea water to nourish the small creatures.

BIETMAN: Basically looks like a little piece of pepper. To the untrained eye it’s nothin’.

AMBI: Hatchery. [Fade out.]

In a couple of months, these little pieces of pepper will be thumbnail size, and they’ll go to municipal re-seeding projects in other townships around the bay, like Brookhaven. And some of them will make their way into laboratories run by scientists like Beth Ravit.

AMBI: Hallway. [Run under.]

RAVIT: As a researcher, it’s easier to use this unattached oyster than one that’s growing flat up tight against another shell.

Ravit teaches environmental science at Rutgers University. Oysters are her specialty.

RAVIT: People often refer to them as the canary in the coal mine for a marine system. If there are environmental stressors, the oyster will tell you that because it will affect their mortality and their growth.

These animals aren’t just indicators of a healthy environment; they’re major actors in creating one. As they feed, oysters filter the water–up to 50 gallons a day. Multiply that by billions of oysters, says Ravit, and you get much cleaner water.

RAVIT: They’ll remove all these little particles from the water column….that’ll let light come through, so that light will support plant life.

Ravit’s just one of many scientists trying to bring back oysters. She works with New York New Jersey Baykeeper, a non-profit organization. Two years ago, they began to re-seed oysters below Staten Island, in Raritan Bay, where the oyster population has been almost non-existent for over a century. Her team has put half a million oysters into its waters.

 RAVIT: We will be going back probably late May to pull up the cages. We will be counting to see how many survived.

If the oysters survive, scientists will come closer to understanding how to grow them in bodies of water affected by pollution. But another oyster researcher, Jeffery Levinton of Stony Brook University, is skeptical.

LEVINTON: Once you put them in the real bottom versus a nice floating cage there are predators that come in—there’s lots of crabs, for example, there’s water quality, sediment moving…there’s all sorts of problems that come up.

Since the late ‘90s, there have been dozens of successful projects to reintroduce oysters around Long Island, but it’s unclear whether scientists can replicate that success in more contaminated waters around the city. Still, Levinson says, things are looking up for the environment.

LEVINTON: The big picture that’s on the scale of decades is that water quality is improving in New York New Jersey Harbor.

And better water means good things — and not just for oysters.

Pola Lem. Columbia Radio News.


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