Oysters may solve coastline troubles

Oysters have always played a significant role in New York City’s history. Since the founding of the city, oysters have been a favored food of both the rich and poor, both people who live in the city and Long Islanders. Eventually, this love affair resulted in the overharvesting of the rich oyster beds, forever changing New York’s water ecosystems. New projects that need support are working to bring these mollusks back. Oysters seem like pretty bland creatures. One can see their shells littered all over city beaches in the summertime and people often curse as they step on them.

Despite being overlooked, oysters are actually vital to the city’s marine ecosystems. This was forgotten for decades as people profited off harvesting them but now, thanks to disasters like Hurricane Sandy, the oyster’s important qualities are being thrust to the forefront of the battle to protect New York from flooding.

Hurricane Sandy made New Yorkers remember that their city is built on the water, surrounded by the water and dependent on the water in many ways. The hurricane also showed New Yorkers that they are vulnerable to that water. Flooding destroyed much of the five boroughs and Long Island, leaving thousands of people without electricity and running water.

Many lost their homes and priceless family possessions. Yet, city residents still choose to remain close to the shores they love even though researchers at Climate Central recently ranked New York as the most vulnerable city in the United States to sea level rise, with over 426,000 people living in zones that could face serious flooding by 2050. This reveals New Yorkers’ stubbornness.

Investing in oysters will aid many New Yorkers’ stubborn mission to live the shore life. Oysters are best known for their work as filter feeders, acting as the underwater version of vacuum cleaners. The mollusks remove organic and inorganic material from the water and leave it cleaner, which positively benefits other marine life and humans who fish in these waters.

However, it is the structure of the oyster itself that will aid the shores the most. The shells of oysters create a hard bottom substrate which end up forming a habitat for other organisms such as anemones and barnacles that require a hard base to attach themselves to. The oyster reefs also act as spawning sanctuaries for local fish.

The stability and strength of these reefs are what will save New York in stormy times. The oyster reefs will be able to break up the waves from storms and decrease the number of waves that reach the shorelines. They also are an answer to the seawall problem. Many do not like building seawalls because nobody can predict where they need to be built and how high water will rise. If built in the wrong places, they are an eyesore and can prevent people from accessing beaches. Oyster reefs can circumvent both those issues.

But this solution has not been marketed to the extent it should be. A feature on the podcast “99% Invisible” is probably the most digestible way people not directly connected to New York or its waterways can learn about oyster reefs. More people need to learn about the importance of oyster reefs in order to promote two amazing projects that will be utilizing them.

The first project is Living Breakwaters, designed by Kate Orff and her firm SCAPE Landscape Architecture. Hundreds of years ago, New York’s seafloor used to be perfect for oyster reefs but overharvesting and dredging have forever changed that landscape.

If oysters were put on the muddy bottom now, they would just be covered in silt and reefs would not form.

Orff took this into account and formed a raised oyster bed structure utilizing ropes and stakes. Now, this plan has grown and received $60 million in funding, allowing that early design to be scrapped for something better. The New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery will carry out the oyster-laying operation. The office will create a necklace of offshore breakwaters out of large rocks and stones and seed them with oysters so that they can grow into reefs. Living Breakwaters will reduce coastal erosion, build beaches and make storms less dangerous.

The second initiative is the Billion Oyster Project, being carried out by Governor Island’s New York Harbor School, which teaches students about oyster restoration. The project entails collecting oyster shells from restaurants and using them as the substrate on which to grow new oysters. The school has partnered with the Living Breakwaters project so that the oysters it is growing will be used for the formation of the necklace being implemented around Staten Island.

Orff’s project was unveiled as early as 2010 but it will finally come to fruition when building starts in 2018, with hope that a bustling reef can be a possibility by 2025. It is sad that the only real reason her project gained traction was because of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction but it would be even sadder if it lost traction because New Yorkers have forgotten the disaster.

It is vital that the importance of oysters and oyster reefs be taught to residents of the city, especially the younger generations. These are the structures that will protect their homes and families from the water and they need to know how to maintain and create them.