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Billion Oyster Project

Updated: Jun 25

Oysters. As bivalve mollusks go, they’re probably the most well-known. Perhaps you’ve met one hanging out on the half shell in some oyster bar (yes, it’s still alive for you to meet), since most people’s relationship with oysters begins and ends at the table. But oysters are so much more than food - they’re a vital part of New York Harbor’s ecosystem. They thrive in brackish waters like ours—so much so that oyster reefs once covered roughly 350 square miles of the harbor bottom. The mortar that binds Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan is made from ground oyster shells—that’s how ubiquitous they were. In fact by the 19th century, New York was known as the oyster capital of the world, and its harbor was said to hold half the world’s known oyster population.

Oysters Skyline

Fast forward to 1972, when New York Harbor resembled nothing so much as an open sewer, thanks to the hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage, along with industrial waste, that was dumped into the Hudson River on a daily basis. While oysters can tolerate lower levels of dissolved oxygen than some marine life, the layer of human waste that carpeted the harbor floor had reduced oxygen to a level that decimated the oyster population. 

Thanks to the Clean Water Act. which passed that year and imposed strict regulations on what could be discharged into the water, the harbor has become far more hospitable to marine life. By the year 2000, water quality in the harbor had improved enough to sustain oysters and other marine life.

In 2014, not content to leave something as important as biodiversity to the likes of Congress, Murray Fisher and Pete Malinowski founded Billion Oyster Project. Grounded in their belief that restoration without education is temporary, the project offers public school students, volunteers, community scientists and restaurants the opportunity to learn about NYC’s rich oyster history and lead the movement to restore it.

Their eponymous goal: Restore one billion live oysters to a harbor where they once thrived. 

Why oysters? Because oysters are filter feeders. They draw water in over their gills by beating cilia. Plankton, algae and other particles become trapped in the mucus of their gills, and from there are transported to their mouths to be eaten. Once the oyster removes all the nutrients, indigestible materials are expelled and deposited on the bottom of the harbor, where they’re not harmful. Just one adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day. 

Brooklyn Bridge Billion Oyster Project Sign

In addition to being nature’s water filtration system, oysters are a keystone species. They grow on top of each other and cement themselves together to create reefs, which provide a habitat for hundreds of other marine species. Many of these animals are prey to larger animals, and before you know it oysters have engineered an entire ecosystem. 

As if that weren’t enough, oyster reefs provide a natural barrier against storm damage, softening the blow of large waves, reducing flooding, and preventing erosion. 

Billion Oyster Project partners with local restaurants to return used oyster shells to the harbor, which helps build a foundation from which new oysters can grow. The shells are collected and then exposed to wind, rain, insects, and more for one year until they are clean enough to re-enter New York Harbor. If you order oysters at one of their partner restaurants, you’re contributing to the project! You can also donate your own clam, scallop and oyster shells to the project for recycling. Learn all about their shell collection program here

Billion Oyster Project Volunteers

Billion Oyster Project has 18 active oyster restoration sites across 16 acres of New York Harbor; one of them is on our dock, we walk right past it on our way to the boat. Since 2014 they’ve restored 100 million juvenile oysters. And oysters are starting to reproduce in the Harbor—a sign that the population can become self-sustaining. As we mentioned, the goal is to restore one billion oysters to the harbor by 2035. Want to help? Find all the ways you can volunteer with the project here.


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