“…as Hurricane Sandy bears down on me, I find I’m desperately missing one thing.
I wish I had some oysters.
I’m not talking about oysters to eat — although a dozen would be nice to go with that leftover bottle of Champagne that I really should drink if the fridge goes off. I’m talking about the oysters that once protected New Yorkers from storm surges, a bivalve population that numbered in the trillions and that played a critical role in stabilizing the shoreline from Washington to Boston.
Generation after generation of oyster larvae rooted themselves on layers of mature oyster shells for more than 7,000 years until enormous underwater reefs were built up around nearly every shore of greater New York.
Just as corals protect tropical islands, these oyster beds created undulation and contour on the harbor bottom that broke up wave action before it could pound the shore with its full force. Beds closer to shore clarified the water through their assiduous filtration (a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day); this allowed marsh grasses to grow, which in turn held the shores together with their extensive root structure.
But 400 years of poor behavior on the part of humans have ruined all that. As Mark Kurlansky details in his fine book “The Big Oyster,” during their first 300 years on these shores colonists nearly ate the wild creatures out of existence. We mined the natural beds throughout the waterways of greater New York and burned them down for lime or crushed them up for road beds.
Once we’d hurled all that against the wild New York oyster, baymen switched to farming oysters. But soon New Yorkers ruined that too. Rudimentary sewer systems dumped typhoid- and cholera-carrying bacteria onto the beds of Jamaica Bay. Large industries dumped tons of pollutants like PCBs and heavy metals like chromium into the Hudson and Raritan Rivers, rendering shellfish from those beds inedible. By the late 1930s, oysters in New York and all the benefits they brought were finished.
Fortunately, the New York oyster is making something of a comeback. Ever since the Clean Water Act was passed in the 1970s, the harbor’s waters have been getting cleaner, and there is now enough dissolved oxygen in our waterways to support oyster life. In the last 10 years, limited sets of natural oyster larvae occurred in several different waterways that make up the Greater New York Bight.
Alongside nature’s efforts, a consortium of human-run organizations that include the Hudson River Foundation, New York-New Jersey Bay Keeper, the Harbor School and even the Army Corps of Engineers have worked together to put out a handful of test reefs throughout the Bight.
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