New York's new environmental 'hero'—the oyster

Sep 02, 2012 by Verena Dobnik
In this Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012 photo, an airplane approaches LaGuardia Airport for landing as Ray Grizzle, left, Kerstin Kalchmayr, second from left, Allison Fitzgerald, second from right, and Loren Coen collect data at an oyster bed at Soundview Park in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

(AP)—On a summer morning, marine biologist Ray Grizzle reaches into the waters of the Bronx River estuary and pulls up an oyster. The 2-year-old female is "good and healthy."

He grabs another handful and gets more good news. "This is a really dynamic area: Live oysters, reproducing!" the University of New Hampshire scientist says.

Grizzle holds up a glistening mollusk. He is standing waist-deep in the murky estuary littered with old tires, bottles, shopping carts and rank debris. A gun was once found.

Marine scientists like him, planners and government officials say millions of mollusks planted in waters off New York and other cities could go a long way toward cleaning up America's polluted urban environment. The oyster and other shellfish can slurp up toxins and eliminate decades of dirt.

Landscape architect Kate Orff has a name for the work she does at her Scape firm: Oyster-tecture. Orff is designing a park and a living reef for the mouth of Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal, where oysters could take hold and help filter one of the nation's most polluted waterways.

"My new hero is the oyster, with its biological power," Orff says.

Oyster-tecture is a 21st-century approach to creating new waterfront infrastructures where long-gone shellfish can be brought back.

Construction has begun on a new pier area that is to host Orff's reef. In her Manhattan office, she holds up a tangle of fuzzy black ropes that will be attached to the Brooklyn pier and filled with shellfish, which need to latch onto something to survive—whether a rock, dead shell or synthetic object.

The Oyster Restoration Research Project, a New York-based nonprofit umbrella group, partners with the NY/NJ Baykeeper ecology advocate working at the Bronx site, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that built an oyster reef on Governors Island off Manhattan.

While oysters are cultivated around the world, the United States has some of the best regeneration programs, says Bill Goldsborough, director of fisheries program at Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis, Maryland. The bay is a center of natural oyster growth, and regeneration is thriving just outside urban Annapolis and in Baltimore harbor.

In this Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012 photo, oysters grow on a discarded tire at Soundview Park in the Bronx borough of New York. Marine scientists, planners and government officials say millions of mollusks living in waters off New York and other cities could go a long way toward cleaning up America's polluted urban environment. The lowly oyster and other shellfish can slurp up toxins and eliminate decades of dirt. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Scientists also are trying to rejuvenate the oyster population in the Hudson River near Yonkers, north of New York, where explorer Henry Hudson spotted oysters in 1609.

"Having oysters improves the whole aquatic habitat, attracting fish and other marine life to the area," says Dennis Suszkowski, the science director of the nonprofit Hudson River Foundation.

The story of the black bivalve in New York is key to the history of America's biggest city.

When the Dutch arrived in Manhattan in the 1600s, the island was surrounded by mammoth oyster beds that fed the Lenape Indians. They covered hundreds of square miles underwater—so important as a major export that today's Ellis and Liberty islands were called Little Oyster Island and Great Oyster Island in colonial times.

Rich and poor New Yorkers and visitors dined on them in a maritime metropolis filled with vessels and street vendors hawking roasted oysters, long before hot dogs. But they slowly died out by the turn of the 19th century, overwhelmed by industrial waste, sewage, diseases and the dredging of the harbor to make room for shipping and development.

Now, new beds of oysters for New York's broken-down ecosystem are budding in more than a half dozen locations in the area. If the water temperature, currents, chemistry and other conditions are right, the bivalve can break down the pollution and thrive. But while suitable for cleanup work, they should not be eaten and poachers should not harvest polluted oysters and sell them for profit.

In this Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012 photo, Allison Fitzgerald measures an oyster from a bed at Soundview Park in the Bronx borough of New York. Marine scientists, planners and government officials say millions of mollusks living in waters off New York and other cities could go a long way toward cleaning up America's polluted urban environment. The lowly oyster and other shellfish can slurp up toxins and eliminate decades of dirt. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Under Gov. Chris Christie, New Jersey banned oyster restoration in 2010 in waters classified as contaminated for shellfish, citing public health.

In New York City, oyster restoration projects were started about seven years ago, with the city Department of Parks initiating the one in the Bronx—a 30-foot (9.14-meter)-long artificial reef made of rubble, old shells and hundreds of mollusks.

"It's so shocking that we're out there in the South Bronx and oysters are thriving—shocking to people who wouldn't put their little toe in the water for fear of how polluted it is," says Marit Larson, a water management expert at the department's Natural Resources Group.

Larson says the aim of what she calls "ecological engineering" is to create hundreds of acres of reefs in the next decades, populated with mollusks that form naturally spawning colonies. Funding for the projects comes from private and government sources. A 1-acre (0.4-hectare) bed with up to 1 million oysters costs at least $50,000 to plant and manage.

Some new plantings in New York Harbor failed because the oysters were swept away by currents and boat wakes. So close attention must be paid to the beds that have succeeded.

"The question is 'how can we use the natural processes of organisms that were once here in abundance,'" she says. If oyster regeneration can be sustained and expanded, "it's the ultimate success story for one of the most urban and heavily used harbors in the world."

Grizzle says the oyster is the perfect aquatic engineer for the job. It pumps water to feed, retains any polluted particles and releases the rest—purified. Each one filters about 50 gallons (189.26 liters) of water a day.

"There's no human engineering substitute for these living things that clean the water," he says as he wades hundreds of feet back to the South Bronx shore.

Behind him, a plane takes off from LaGuardia Airport, low over Rikers Island jail.

Explore further: Oil drilling possible 'trigger' for deadly Italy quakes

5 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

The Pacific oyster is in Sweden to stay

Mar 22, 2011

The Pacific oyster was discovered in large numbers along the west coast of Sweden in 2007. The mortality rate in some places during the past two winters has been 100%, but researchers at the University of ...

Oysters disappearing worldwide: study

Feb 03, 2011

A survey of oyster habitats around the world has found that the succulent mollusks are disappearing fast and 85 percent of their reefs have been lost due to disease and over-harvesting.

Could oysters be used to clean up Chesapeake Bay?

Jan 21, 2011

Chronic water quality problems caused by agricultural and urban runoff, municipal wastewater, and atmospheric deposition from the burning of fossil fuels leads to oxygen depletion, loss of biodiversity, and harmful algal ...

New report puts real numbers behind history of oyster reefs

Jun 12, 2012

In an effort to advance the field of coastal restoration, The Nature Conservancy and a team of scientists from more than a dozen management agencies and research institutions led by the University of Cambridge conducted an ...

Recommended for you

Predicting bioavailable cadmium levels in soils

17 hours ago

New Zealand's pastoral landscapes are some of the loveliest in the world, but they also contain a hidden threat. Many of the country's pasture soils have become enriched in cadmium. Grasses take up this toxic heavy metal, ...

Oil drilling possible 'trigger' for deadly Italy quakes

21 hours ago

Italy's Emilia-Romagna region on Tuesday suspended new drilling as it published a report that warned that hydrocarbon exploitation may have acted as a "trigger" in twin earthquakes that killed 26 people in ...

Snow is largely a no-show for Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

21 hours ago

On March 1, 65 mushers and their teams of dogs left Anchorage, Alaska, on a quest to win the Iditarod—a race covering 1,000 miles of mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forest, tundra and coastline. According ...

UN weather agency warns of 'El Nino' this year

21 hours ago

The UN weather agency Tuesday warned there was a good chance of an "El Nino" climate phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean this year, bringing droughts and heavy rainfall to the rest of the world.

Study shows less snowpack will harm ecosystem

22 hours ago

(Phys.org) —A new study by CAS Professor of Biology Pamela Templer shows that milder winters can have a negative impact both on trees and on the water quality of nearby aquatic ecosystems, far into the warm growing season.

User comments : 0

More news stories

Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

Last winter's curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, ...

UN weather agency warns of 'El Nino' this year

The UN weather agency Tuesday warned there was a good chance of an "El Nino" climate phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean this year, bringing droughts and heavy rainfall to the rest of the world.

ESO image: A study in scarlet

This new image from ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile reveals a cloud of hydrogen called Gum 41. In the middle of this little-known nebula, brilliant hot young stars are giving off energetic radiation that ...

First direct observations of excitons in motion achieved

A quasiparticle called an exciton—responsible for the transfer of energy within devices such as solar cells, LEDs, and semiconductor circuits—has been understood theoretically for decades. But exciton movement within ...

Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

(Phys.org) —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

Tech giants look to skies to spread Internet

The shortest path to the Internet for some remote corners of the world may be through the skies. That is the message from US tech giants seeking to spread the online gospel to hard-to-reach regions.