09-03-12 Associate Press, Verena Dobnik
Marine scientists …, say mollusks planted in waters off New York and other cities could go a long way toward cleaning up America’s polluted urban environment. The oyster and other shellfish can slurp up toxins and eliminate decades of dirt.
Landscape architect Kate Orff has a name for the work she does at her Scape firm: Oyster-tecture. Orff is designing a park and a living reef for the mouth of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, where oysters could take hold and help filter one of the nation’s most polluted waterways.
“My new hero is the oyster, with its biological power,” Orff says.
The Oyster Restoration Research Project, a New York-based nonprofit umbrella group, partners with the NY/NJ Baykeeper ecology advocate working at the Bronx site, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that built an oyster reef on Governors Island off Manhattan.
While oysters are cultivated around the world, the United States has some of the best regeneration programs, says Bill Goldsborough, director of fisheries program at Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis, Md. The bay is a center of natural oyster growth, and regeneration is thriving just outside urban Annapolis and in Baltimore harbor.
Oyster-tecture is a 21st-century approach to creating new waterfront infrastructures where long-gone shellfish can be brought back.
Rich and poor New Yorkers and visitors dined on them in a maritime metropolis filled with vessels and street vendors hawking roasted oysters, long before hot dogs. But they slowly died out by the turn of the 19th century, overwhelmed by industrial waste, sewage, diseases and the dredging of the harbor to make room for shipping and development.
Now, new beds of oysters for New York’s broken-down ecosystem are budding in more than a half dozen locations in the area. If the water temperature, currents, chemistry and other conditions are right, the bivalve can break down the pollution and thrive. But while suitable for cleanup work, they should not be eaten and poachers should not harvest polluted oysters and sell them for profit.
“The question is ‘how can we use the natural processes of organisms that were once here in abundance,'” she says. If oyster regeneration can be sustained and expanded, “it’s the ultimate success story for one of the most urban and heavily used harbors in the world.”
Grizzle says the oyster is the perfect aquatic engineer for the job. It pumps water to feed, retains any polluted particles and releases the rest — purified. Each one filters about 50 gallons of water a day.
“There’s no human engineering substitute for these living things that clean the water,” he says as he wades hundreds of feet back to the South Bronx shore.
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