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What We Can Learn About Climate Change from NYC’s Oyster Population

New York is a man-made city of iron and concrete. But sometimes it’s easy to forget that it’s also a city of coastlines, with water all around. Which makes the city a rich habitat for marine life. Kamila Kudelska explores one species that used to be a more of a central character: oysters.

Kudelska: Acia Salgado and Kim Gomez walk down a metal ramp onto a small wooden, floating dock on the coast of Governors Island. The Manhattan skyline is behind them but they are focusing on the water. Salgado kneels down and grabs a brown rope connected to the dock. Both girls begin pulling the rope. (SOUND: Stack being pulled out) Attached to the rope are three black, plastic shoe racks you would put in your closet to organize. But there are no shoes in these stacks.

ACIA: These are our oyster trays. In these trays we have bags of mesh with oyster shells in them. on them we have larvae growing. this is our eco dock so we have them once they are a few weeks old.

Kudelska: Salgado and Gomez are checking on the status of the larvae or baby oysters growing on the hard surface of adult oyster shells. The larvae are being introduced to the estuary water. An estuary is where the river meets the sea. The water is more salty than fresh — a perfect habitat for oysters says Salgado.

Acia: They get really strong bc they are really used to  the estuary water we can put them in any of our other oyster reef locations and they’ll be able to survive temp, water quality and usually they are tougher than any diseases in our waters.

Kudelska: Salgado and Gomez are both interns for the Billion Oyster Project. As you can guess from the name, the foundation’s goal is to restore a billion oysters to the New York Harbor. Today it seems crazy to reintroduce oysters to the city’s grimy water. But just over 100 years ago, the situation was very different says Brett Palyerman of Wagner College. He teaches about the environmental history of New York City.

Palyerman: Before New York was a city it was prob the single greatest oyster habitat on the planet. By some estimates something like half of the entire global population of oysters lived in new york harbor around 1609.

Kudelska: Before the abundance of hot dogs or thin crust pizza in New York, there were oysters. And everyone ate them: the Lenape native americans, settlers and eventually immigrants. But these oysters didn’t look anything like what we’re used to seeing on our dinner plates today — says Palyerman.

Palyerman: A lot of early new york oysters were monsters. if you open these things up, you can imagine the thing that looked inside looked like a steak it must’ve been a solid meal. it was not a bite of an oyster that you tip back at the bar today.

Kudelska: New Yorker’s prepared them in stews, threw them on a stovetop, grilled them or just ate them raw. But one thing, one of the biggest populations of oysters in the world couldn’t compete with — New York City says Palyerman.

Palyerman:  You can imagine as the city population grew and as harvest methods became more and more efficient humans grew pretty good at scraping this place clean. even the tremendous oyster population that existed here could not keep up with the sheer growth of the size of nyc  and the technology.

Kudelska: By 1927, the city closed the last bed of oysters declaring them unsafe to eat and ever since new york oysters were virtually extinct. Today at the Billion Oyster Project, they’re working on creating a whole new population. Blyss Buitrago is giving a tour of the hatchery at Governors Island.

Blyss: This where all the magic happens.

Kudelska: The hatchery is one small, square room. Cramped inside are three huge tanks filled with water. Buitrago goes over to one tank. Inside are oyster shells held together in black mesh bags. The baby oysters are ready to become spat. Essentially attach to a hard surface of an adult oyster shell.

Blyss:  I’m going to pull one of these guys out so you can see it up close and personal this is great. so they kind of look like poppy seeds right now so all those black specks those are baby oysters.

Kudelska: Next Buitrago goes over to a small glass fish aquarium. Inside there are a couple of oyster shells. She puts her hand in the water and grabs a big oyster shell with tiny oyster shells attached to it. On average 20 oysters can attach to one shell.

Blyss: So this is what spat on shell looks like. On this one we have about 5 guys hanging out on here. so they will stay like this. they will mature and span and they’ll have their own babies and hopefully their babies will spat around them and that’s how they build those massive reefs.

Kudelska: One of the new trends of coastal resiliency is to look at oyster reefs. They’re clusters of oyster shells attached to each other creating wall like structures. Oyster reefs have a number of different ecosystem services. They are filter feeders. They provide habitats for fish. And they stabilize the water bed. But by far the most popular service today — shoreline protection.

Blyss: Basically the older the oyster and the reef and the bigger it is the better it will break those waves before they come to shoreline.

Kudelska: New York City is an urban coastal city. And after Hurricane Sandy, city leaders realized they could no longer ignore the threat of future storms and rising sea levels. Until now breakwaters were the norm for protection. But these rocks or artificial material placed in the water along the coast are not enough. Steven Scyphers is an assistant professor at Northeastern University. Back in 2011, he published a research paper showing that the presence of oyster reefs on the coast can reduce shoreline erosion.

Scyphers: We take the benefits of oysters  and we design reefs that are comprised with the same characteristics of a breakwater so you get this engineering shoreline protection outcome but you also get the environmental benefits.

Kudelska: So if oyster reefs are reintroduced along coastlines, they can help weaken storm waves and preserve marshes and wetlands while also creating a rich marine habitat. And in the not too distance future, New York City will be testing the efficiency of natural breakwaters. Last week the city held a public hearing on Living Breakwaters — a proposed ecological breakwater system with oyster reefs along the south shore of staten island. Pippa Brashear is its’ project manager. She says the aim was to think of a new way to protect coastal cities.

Brashear: We set a couple of questions of for ourselves, what if we can’t always keep the water out, what are the real risks, the most damaging risks of coastal storms and how can we work with nature not against it?

Kudelska: Embracing nature not fighting it — that’s what interns Acia Salgado and Kim Gomez are doing back on the dock at Governor’s Island. They’re lifting heavy stacks of three oyster trays back into the water. In another week, there will be a couple thousand more oysters reintroduced into the harbor. Some will create oyster reefs. And the Billion Oyster Project hopes to get to a billion oysters by 2035. New York may never return back to the rich oyster habitat it was — over 400 years ago but today at least they’re heading in the right direction — one baby oyster at a time.

Kamila Kudelska, Columbia Radio News.


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