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The New York Harbor recovery has reached another milestone as 2021 draws to a close: over the past six months, 11.2 million young oysters have been added to a section of the Hudson River off the coast of lower Manhattan, where they help filtering the water and creating habitats for other marine life.
The bivalves will not be led to a serving dish: the water is still too polluted to eat freely, after centuries of absorbing garbage, sewage and industrial waste. But water quality in the area is steadily improving, and oysters — which were once so common in the waters that they served as the staple of New Yorkers’ diets — are playing a key role in the shift.
The city was once one of the world’s largest oyster capitals, exporting millions of them across the country and around the world. They were sold from street stalls, saloons and barges. New Yorkers of all social classes enjoyed them, whether raw, roasted, pickled, baked, or in chowders, sauces, and stews.
In his book “The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell,” author Mark Kurlansky writes that the history of New York oysters is a history of the city itself. Years of over-harvesting and environmental degradation left the water so polluted that oysters couldn’t even survive there for a while. Now, in addition to the species being introduced, wild species are found on the bottoms of piers off the West Side of Manhattan and in the Bronx.
It could be another 100 years before someone can safely eat an oyster from the water, said Carrie Roble, vice president for estuary and education at the Hudson River Park Trust’s River Project, a marine biology monitoring station at Pier 40, near Pier 40. West Houston Street.
But the oysters are a symbol of resilience and a rare sign of hope amid ominous news about New York’s waterways in the era of rapid climate change.
If they grow large enough, the oyster reefs can even play a role in dissipating wave energy, protecting the city’s coasts from storm surges and flooding in extreme weather.
“They’re habitat builders,” Mrs. Roble said.
The newly released oysters are attached to more than 200 subtidal habitats, including metal orbs, cages and wire mesh wraps, in the water between piers 26 and 34, at TriBeCa.
It is the first large-scale habitat restoration in the Hudson River Park estuarine sanctuary, an area where freshwater from the river and saltwater from the Atlantic mix to create a nutrient-rich ecosystem for more than 85 species of fish.
Ms Roble noted that the estuary is a critical breeding ground for regional waterways and many species of fish migrate or spawn through the area. Striped bass caught in Connecticut or New Jersey probably spent time in the Hudson when they were young.
And more vibrant marine life leads to exponential growth. For example, large populations of menhaden, a small silverfish, attract humpback whales to feed on it.
The $1.5 million project was designed by the Hudson River Park Trust, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and engineering firm Moffatt and Nichol, with government funding.
The “seeded” oysters came from the Billion Oyster Project, a nonprofit with a mission to make its name a reality in New York Harbor by 2035. The group says it has already recovered 75 million oysters in the area since it was founded in 2014.
“No one has done this before,” Kevin Quinn, senior vice president of design and construction for Hudson River Park, said in an interview last month as workers prepared to lower more of the oyster houses into the water. “It is exciting. I hope we can do it again.”
Installation of the underwater habitats began in July and was expected to be completed by Friday. Together they create a reef-like system that acts as a passageway for fish and a home for more oysters, clams and barnacles.
In addition to the millions of young oysters, which are known as spit, 600 mature oysters have also been placed. They came from a program set up during the pandemic to help oyster farmers who saw their businesses plummet due to restaurant closures.
“We usually build the piers,” said John O’Neill, supervisor of Reicon Group, the contractor who installed the oyster devices. “This is an experiment in environmental conservation.”
Riverkeeper, a nonprofit that has fought to restore the Hudson River since the 1960s, also helped conceive the project.
“Oysters are a keystone species in our estuaries of tremendous ecological value,” George Jackman, the group’s senior habitat restoration manager, said in a statement.
“Along with reducing sewer overflows, adding oyster reefs and other bivalves is one of the best ways to restore and maintain the health of the Hudson River Estuary.”
The researchers of the River Project will monitor the oysters and their effect on the water. They run a small, free aquarium on Pier 40 specifically designed to educate the public about the area’s abundant marine life.
Under the pier lives a very special oyster called Big. At 8.6 inches and 1.9 pounds, it was believed to be the largest oyster found in New York Harbor in a century when it was discovered in 2018. Big has grown only slightly since then, but is doing well, River Project employees said afterwards. measure and investigate during a recent tour.
One challenge for the River Project’s teachers is to drive home to visitors who learn about the oysters that they are not safe to eat. The city continues to discharge untreated sewage into its waterways during periods of heavy rainfall, introducing dangerous bacteria.
And that’s on top of the legacy of industrial pollutants continuously released up to the 1970s, including PCBs, from factories along the river. Oysters are incredibly prolific filterers — an adult can filter up to 50 gallons a day — but they can’t filter out heavy metals and PCBs.
“There’s still a long way to go before we can eat the oysters,” said Ms. Roble.
But she said the underwater structures, which can be easily pulled out for visitors to see, help people understand the world beneath the water’s surface and feel invested in protecting it.
“We want the community to really participate,” she said.
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