Once upon a time, the waters around New York City were home to millions of oysters. And now conservationists are on a mission to bring them back.
Decades of over-harvesting and pollution took their toll on New York's oyster populations. Image: NYC DEP, Flickr

The return of these iconic mollusks is not some dream for seafood lovers – the oysters may hold the key to cleaning up New York's waters, restoring populations of other sea creatures, and even protecting landlubbers from ocean storms. And all it will take is careful work, dedication ... and about 5,000 broken toilets.

You may be surprised at how many people are interested in restoring healthy oyster populations. Researchers from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP), supported with funding from the United States Department of the Interior and the nation-wide DEP, are teaming up with folks from the Billion Oyster Project, which raises and restores oysters with the participation of over 3,000 students from more than 50 New York schools. Together, these intrepid groups are now embarking on a mission to plant 50,000 oysters in Jamaica Bay, a former oyster hotspot on the southern side of Long Island.
The restoration project involves planting a large central bed of 50,000 living oysters in Jamaica Bay. Image: NYC DEP, Flickr

New York City has a long, intimate history with oysters. Back when these hard-shelled delicacies could be found across hundreds of thousands of acres in the Hudson River estuary, they were sold cheaply on street corner stands, just as common as hot dogs and falafel today. "In past centuries, if you were to say, I’m going to New York, the most likely response would be, enjoy the oysters," says Mark Kurlansky, author of the The Big Oyster.

But all that bounty has been reduced to practically zero after a long history of overharvesting, water pollution and especially dredging – a harvesting process that rips up the seafloor and removes the hard surfaces that oysters live on.

The loss has been rough on local ecosystems. You might not think it to look at them, but oysters are a big deal. They filter out water pollutants such as excess nitrogen; they support important habitats for fish and other sea creatures that live around oyster reefs; and they even stabilise the ground beneath them, protecting wetlands and shorelines from erosion by waves and damaging storm surges.

It's easy to see why local conservationists are so interested in bringing the oysters back, but these mollusks also need the right kind of surface to live on. Which brings me to the toilets.
Rather than being sent to landfill, 5,000 disused toilets are being incoroporated into new oyster habitat. Image: NYC DEP, Flickr

The restoration project involves planting a large central bed of 50,000 living oysters in Jamaica Bay, and as the mollusks reproduce, their tiny swimming larvae will need somewhere to live. That's why four uninhabited nursery beds are also in the works, made of old oyster and clam shells, along with broken porcelain harvested from almost 5,000 disused toilets! (Believe it or not, the trashed toilets are no strangers to environmental protection – they were all originally scrapped in favour of more water-efficient models.)

When it comes to finding a spot to call home, oysters aren't too picky, it turns out. "[They] will settle on almost anything," explains Jim Lodge, who leads the research portion of the experiment. With plenty of space to spread out, the hope is that the oysters will develop a self-sustaining population, while scientists plan to monitor the area for improvements in water quality and pollution levels. 

"This oyster bed will serve multiple purposes – protecting our wetlands from erosion, naturally filtering our water, and providing a home for our sea dwellers are just a few," says New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Artificial reefs like this are pretty common in modern aquatic conservation. In many places around the world, old ships and planes are sunk to the seafloor to provide foundations for reefs. These days you can even aim for an environmentally conscious afterlife, with your cremated remains acting as reef substrate!

With the support of researchers, teachers and students alike, the new oyster project is shaping up to be a big deal for local water conservation. But seafood lovers shouldn't get too excited – the oysters are not destined for the plate.

Top header image: NYC DEP, Flickr