Bringing Oysters Back to New York Harbor

AHA Session 54
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Mercury Ballroom (New York Hilton, Third Floor)
Brett Palfreyman, Wagner College
Restoring Oysters in Lemon Creek, Staten Island
John Acquaviva, Wagner College
The Living Breakwaters Project
Pippa Brashear, SCAPE Studios
Oyster Restoration in the Hudson Raritan Estuary
Allison Fitzgerald, New York New Jersey Baykeeper

Session Abstract

Before it became the largest metropolis in the United States, New York Harbor was the greatest oyster habitat on the planet. Some estimates suggest that the islands, waterways, bays, and marshes of the Hudson River estuary may have been home to as much as half of the world’s oyster population. For centuries, the bountiful bivalves served as both as dietary staple and a booming industry, providing sustenance and jobs for New Yorkers of all classes and backgrounds. But by the early 1900s, after years of overharvesting and increasing pollution, not even New York’s massive oyster population could withstand the explosive growth of the city. Local officials finally declared New York Harbor oysters unsafe to eat in 1927.

Just in the last decade, however, a number of organizations have initiated campaigns to bring oysters back to New York waters. Groups like the Billion Oyster Project, which aims to seed 1 billion oysters by the year 2050, hope that a restored oyster population will once again provide critical environmental services to the local ecosystem. First, as filter feeders, oysters clean water as they eat–as much as 50 gallons per adult oyster per day. Second, oysters are ecosystem architects, building complex reef structures that provide habitats for fish, birds, and other marine life. Third, and perhaps most important as sea levels rise and weather becomes ever more severe, oyster reefs provide natural defenses to protect shorelines from storm surges and erosion.

This panel proposes to provide a comprehensive look at the past, present, and potential future of oysters in New York Harbor. Historian Brett Palfreyman will examine how generations of New Yorkers have relied on the mollusks over the past centuries, from the earliest Lenape inhabitants of the area to the first European settlers to the industrialized harvesting operations of the 19th century. Biologist Michael McCann of the Nature Conservancy will discuss the key roles that oysters have played – and could play again – in the fragile ecosystem of the Hudson River estuary. Undergraduate researcher John Acquaviva will present the results of an experimental oyster restoration study conducted by Wagner College students in a marshy wetland on the southeast coast of Staten Island called Lemon Creek (Spoiler alert: Oysters can still thrive in New York Harbor!) And architect Pippa Brashear will describe how her urban design firm, SCAPE Studios, is currently integrating oyster reefs into the Living Breakwaters Project, an ongoing, $60 million effort to protect the coast of Staten Island in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

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