Until the early 20th century, New York City’s waters were teeming with oysters. Some biologists estimate that the Hudson-Raritan Estuary was once home to half of the world’s oyster population, serving as both an abundant culinary delicacy and a natural water filtration system. Oysters are considered “ecosystem engineers” that shape their environment into complex three-dimensional structures to support themselves and a host of other organisms. Estuaries — bodies of water formed where freshwater and seawater meet — offer ideal conditions for these diverse ecosystems of marine and plant life to flourish. But now, due to overfishing, the destruction of natural wetlands, poor water quality from sewage overflow and decades of contamination, biodiversity has reached a low point — and the once ubiquitous oyster, a paragon of water filtration and habitat production, has nearly disappeared.
Today, the Oyster Restoration Research Project (ORRP), a partnership led by the Hudson River Foundation, the US Army Corps of Engineers, NY/NJ Baykeeper, the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program, the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, is working to reverse that trend. The ORRP, which covers an area of the estuary reaching out 25 miles from the Statue of Liberty, is bringing together policy, science and community engagement to restore a keystone oyster species once native to New York and New Jersey waterways. The nature of the restoration project is largely misunderstood as an effort to revive oysters for food. ORRP partners tell a different story, one of equal value, that brings New Yorkers to the water and puts wildlife — wildlife that can improve water quality, facilitate nutrient cycling, enhance biodiversity and stabilize our shorelines — back into our waterways.
The program stems from a major planning document released in 2008: the Comprehensive Restoration Plan (CRP) for the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary. The CRP, which was developed as part of a study by the US Army Corps of Engineers – New York District, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program, identifies a series of short- and long-term goals that aim to restore a “mosaic of habitats” to eight specific planning regions throughout the estuary. The ORRP project will help partners analyze the feasibility of this ambitious plan, which calls for restoring 500 acres of oyster reefs by 2015 and 5,000 acres by 2050. Six pilot reefs have been installed in and around New York Harbor, at Hastings on Hudson, Soundview Park, Governors Island, Bay Ridge Flats, Staten Island and Jamaica Bay. Each has been stocked with 50,000 oysters, which are being monitored for development, survival, growth and ecological performance.
Earlier this month, I joined Jim Lodge of the Hudson River Foundation, Katie Mosher-Smith and Kerstin Kalchmayr of NY/NJ Baykeeper, and Kate Boicourt of the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program to check on some recently-planted oysters in Soundview Park in the Bronx. As we donned our waders and headed towards the water, the team offered some insight into their collaborative process, the educational aim of their program and the unique challenges of bringing oysters back to New York Harbor. –A.R.
The Oyster Restoration Research Project (ORRP) has a uniquely collaborative model. Tell us about some of the partnerships that have helped make oyster restoration a reality.
We currently have about 28 (see full list below in Comments) different organizations on the project, and within each organization there are multiple partners. Partners range from not-for-profit groups like the Hudson River Foundation, Rocking The Boat (a Bronx River-based group) and the Bronx River Alliance; to city departments, like the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s Natural Resources Group; to federal government agencies, such as EPA Region Two, the Harbor Estuary Program and the US Army Corps of Engineers; to student groups, including the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School — ORRP is, at its heart, a research project, so we have a lot of academic institutions and partners on the project, including Stonybrook University and University of New Hampshire — and then, of course, NY/NJ Baykeeper.
NY/NJ Baykeeper has been a pioneer in pursuing oyster restoration for New York Harbor. They have been exploring the potential for natural recruitment of oysters since 1999. Around the same time, they started the Oyster Gardening Program, which has done a lot to highlight the challenges of restoration and the importance of bringing oysters back to the harbor.
The Oyster Gardening project is a public program?
Oyster gardening is a system of citizen science that’s been used up and down the east coast for a while, engaging schools, individuals and community groups in restoration work.
It’s a strange name for what it is. It’s called a “gardening program,” so people associate it with food production. But that’s clearly not the goal. The Oyster Gardening Program teaches people about restoration through raising and cultivating oysters. It’s not just high schools that are getting involved, but community groups, senior citizen centers and preschools. That’s why the model is so powerful, because you can involve the public at multiple levels and encourage a connection between the average citizen and the estuary. And it’s fun! People get to participate, they get to watch oysters grow and eventually these oysters will be used in restoration efforts.
We want to create an oyster reef specifically for these garden oysters so that participants can feel that they’re part of the greater project of restoring the health of the urban estuary. We want gardeners to be able to wade out and monitor their own oysters.
Where are the ORRP pilot sites?
We have six experimental research sites within New York Harbor. Starting from the south, the sites are: near Great Kills Harbor in Staten Island; Bay Ridge Flats, which is a quarter mile south of Governors Island; Buttermilk Channel, on the east side of Governors Island; there’s a site out in Soundview at the mouth of the Bronx River, which is where we’re headed today; an experimental reef site in Hastings-on-Hudson; and one in Jamaica Bay at Dubos Point.
We chose geographically dispersed sites to ensure a range of environmental conditions. We go from water with almost no salinity up at Hastings to near-seawater at the Staten Island site. Food availability varies, as do levels of oxygen. We monitor survival, growth and reproduction at each site and then look at those variables to try to understand how they influence success or failure. We are also studying predation pressures. Because we don’t have any naturally existing reefs, we need to take note of different predators across locations.
Each of the sites uses the same design. A 6-inch, granite rock, rip-rap base is followed by a veneer of clam shells and a top layer of spat-on-shell. Pete Malinowski and his students at the Harbor School cultivate the spat-on-shell in aquaculture tanks on Governors Island, which allows the juvenile oysters to settle and mature on old oyster shells before installation at each reef site.
What unique challenges does oyster restoration present in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary?
In places like the Chesapeake Bay and South Carolina, restoration efforts focus on providing a suitable substrate — they basically just put down shell material and there are enough larvae in the water column to take hold. We don’t have a large enough natural larval pool, so we have to go through many more time-consuming, labor-intensive steps. So we’re trying to determine how to optimize those techniques and how to take advantage of any minimal natural recruitment that we may get. Soundview has some natural oysters due to its proximity to the Long Island Sound where there is a viable oyster population.
There’s been a specific effort to look at how we maintain our shorelines and if there are ways we can try to increase complexity and create potential for habitat. There’s not a lot of habitat on a hardened shoreline, but there are options to improve conditions. For example, oyster reef balls, which are these porous, concrete structures that mimic naturally occurring reefs and provide shelter for growing oysters. Though that’s slightly different than straight oyster restoration.
What are your metrics for success?
To be successful on a large-scale restoration effort, you want to have natural recruitment on the reefs. But this project is focused on research and information. We want to understand how and if it is feasible to restore our oyster population, to drive future restoration efforts. And the project is not limited to oysters. We will be experimenting with different bivalves. We have to look broadly at what we’re trying to accomplish and what sort of things are going to help us reach those goals.
The Comprehensive Restoration Plan is the guiding document for what we’re trying to achieve in the region, and the Harbor Estuary Program has adopted the plan as their restoration vision. The CRP calls for about 500 acres of restored reef by 2015 — which is extremely optimistic considering it’s 2011 and we have basically none — and 5,000 acres by 2050. We don’t know if that’s realistic or feasible or not.
Oyster reefs wouldn’t be in competition with other waterway uses. Even 5,000 acres is a very small footprint within the estuary. If anything, increased attention on the waterfront is amplifying interest in restoring the habitat. People want to see the water clean.
Are you in communication with or involved in other local efforts to engage oyster restoration in waterfront design, such as Kate Orff of SCAPE’s Oyster-tecture, or Mara Haseltine’s New School project? Do you see their projects having any impact on your efforts?
The director of the oyster program from Baykeeper works collaboratively with Mara Haseltine and they’re doing some illustrative experiments this year in New Jersey. We do speak with Kate Orff but we’re not directly involved with any of her efforts. They engage with different audiences than we tend to attract, which is a real benefit. Any way we can expand public interest and involvement in this issue is an advantage to our efforts.
The intersection between restoration as a planning and regulatory issue (thinking again of Vision 2020 and PlaNYC) and as an interest of the architecture and design communities is fantastic. There has always been a disconnect between restoration and planning efforts and the people on the ground. Now, our broad visions are being applied in a very real sense, providing us an opportunity to think about how to optimize that work.
What do you wish people knew about oyster restoration that is often misunderstood?
A lot of people think you’re going to eat them.
When most people think of oysters, including me in my non-work life, they think of oysters on the half shell. They think of food. The main purpose of our project is to restore oysters for their habitat value. Reefs provide habitat for fish and invertebrates. We’re also looking at the potential for water quality improvements, which we think might have limited local effect. There have been other areas of the country where people are building reefs to help eroding shorelines. The word we’d like to get out is that it’s not about bringing back a lost fishery, but lost habitat value.
In the past year, public planning sessions were held in the eight planning regions of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary to define potential sites for restoration and to incorporate citizen input into the development of public access points for shoreline restoration sites. People were, and still are, able to nominate a site for land acquisition and restoration if they can demonstrate its potential habitat value. The sites in question are documented on oasisnyc.net, a mapping site developed by Steve Romalewski previously featured on Urban Omnibus.
Interview conducted by Alicia Rouault, Urban Omnibus Assistant Editor.