Regenerating New York Harbor, One Billion Oysters at a Time

The Billion Oyster Project connects young people to the city's waterfronts and aims to revive its oyster population to reduce pollution and build climate resilience.



When Hurricane Sandy struck New York on October 29, 2012, it deluged every neighborhood it hit. Seven years later, many neighborhoods—including Coney Island, Canarsie in Brooklyn, and points all along the shore of Staten Island—are still recovering. Others, such as Staten Island’s Fox Beach, were destroyed in their entirety, never to have residents again.

With these events in all too recent memory, New Yorkers know how susceptible they are to climate change and are at the forefront of developing new approaches to the climate crisis, with the city’s young people getting especially involved. As the recent youth climate strikes that brought hundreds of thousands to New York’s streets attest, the younger generations—those who will be most affected by climate change—are taking concrete steps to try to turn back the tide, quite literally.

One of the programs that is engaging youth is the Billion Oyster Project. While the project’s founding goal aimed to to make the “waters surrounding New York City cleaner, more abundant, more well-known, more well-loved,” it has a more pressing role in the time of accelerating climate change: creating oyster reefs that can help blunt storm surges that accompany hurricanes by breaking up the waves before they hit land.

To date, the program has planted 28 million oysters with the help of thousands of volunteers and high school students. An offshoot of this outreach is that young people are engaging with the waterfront like never before. This has strengthened communities and led to relationships between young and old who might not have ever known each other had the climate crisis not brought them together.

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Volunteer John Ribaudo of Coney Island said his work with the Billion Oyster Project inspired him to start his own programs in the waterways surrounding his home, and he’s now learning from fishermen who in turn were taught by their grandparents. With this knowledge passed on to him, he’s sharing it with friends of his generation, and young and old are now coming together on New York’s waterways to address the surging seas.

“We learn from each other in a way that isn’t really possible if we’re all just kind of trying to come in and impose the idea that we’re experts,” Ribaudo said. “We’re learning it through experience and that’s really important to connect with.”

Tanasia Swift, pictured at top, is the Community Reefs Regional Manager at the Billion Oyster Project. She grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, one of the most urban places in the city. However, for as long as she can remember, she wanted to be a marine biologist. Her inseparable bond to New York’s waterways formed when she’d go to Red Hook with her father to fish as a child. She now leads efforts to install community reefs in South Brooklyn, which was badly impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

On this day, Swift leads students from Public School 115 studying oysters and learning about the basin with a meditation. For her, the program is as much about regenerating community as it is about ecology. Before the students get technical knowledge, Swift wants them to develop a connection to the environment and gain an awareness of things they might not have been conscious of before.

Swift encourages the children to close their eyes, breathe simply, and be aware of everything their senses perceive. After they reopen their eyes, she asks what they experienced. “I didn’t know it smelled like the ocean,” one of the students says. “I didn’t know we were this close to the water.” They also talk about hearing birds and the water lapping against the nearby shore, things they were not aware of when their eyes were open.

Their exercise in sensory perception leads them to make empirical discoveries, which in the end, informs their science. No standardized test preparation could achieve the results of this exercise, Swift says, and she hopes the students depart with a living process of discovery they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Oyster reefs form the foundation for a vast ecosystem in the waters that they filter. Contained within them live small fish and crabs which become food for larger fish and birds above them. Throughout the day the children would shriek and exclaim with excitement when they discovered a new lifeform.

Oyster reefs form the foundation for a vast ecosystem in the waters that they filter. Contained within them live small fish and crabs which become food for larger fish and birds above them. Throughout the day the children would shriek and exclaim with excitement when they discovered a new lifeform.

At first when children pick up crabs, they find their claws intimidating and drop them right away. Explaining that they need to respect the small creatures, instructors told the children they could freak out before and after they touched the crabs, but not while they touched them. After taking this advice to heart, the students took deep breaths and picked up the crabs, holding them in the pit of their palms. One girl, through giggles, said that once the crab was on her and scuttling across her skin, there actually wasn’t anything to be afraid of.

PS 115 Students end the day by heading down to the dock to see oysters and the creatures that live in them closer to their habitat. Though the students’ school is within a mile of the water, many had never before visited the shore. This workshop provided them the chance to enter a living laboratory.

PS 115 Students end the day by heading down to the dock to see oysters and the creatures that live in them closer to their habitat. Though the students’ school is within a mile of the water, many had never before visited the shore. This workshop provided them the chance to enter a living laboratory.

The Billion Oyster Project has dozens of projects throughout New York City, and one is eight miles away from Canarsie in Coney Island Creek, which flows into New York Harbor. The waters there are heavily polluted, and a stench hangs all around.

For years, Coney Island Creek has been like this: home to the rotting hulls of ships and a dumping ground for discarded tires, rusting shopping carts, and the like.

For years, Coney Island Creek has been like this: home to the rotting hulls of ships and a dumping ground for discarded tires, rusting shopping carts, and the like.

The Billion Oyster Project hopes to bring life back to this body of water. They have currently planted 160,000 oyster beds in Coney Island Creek with the goal of bringing the total to 200,000.

“The motivations for installing a reef at Coney Island Creek have as much to do with awareness as with restoration,” Swift said in a blog post. “Some people go swimming in the creek at times when it is dangerous to do so, such as after combined sewage overflows (CSOs). Some shy away from the creek entirely, worrying that it’s always dangerous to touch the water. Part of this reef’s purpose is to provide a way for people to better get to know, and safely interact with, the water near their homes.”

John Ribaudo, pictured above on the Atlantic shore, lives near the polluted creek and has volunteered with the Billion Oyster Project. As a Coney Island resident, he knows how climate change threatens his community. But he is also aware of how important community is in addressing those threats.

“I’m trying to create monthly activities in nearby parks and hopefully on Coney Island Beach where we can get a lot of our people out to enjoy nature while it’s still here,” he says. “If we can invigorate a spirit within our community to care for the nature around us, we can invigorate a spirit to save it. Communities are the ones that really need to start getting their people organized to protect their areas, because the sea levels are rising and eventually our neighborhood will be underwater.”

Photo: Berenice Abbott from the collection of the New York Public Library.

Photo: Berenice Abbott from the collection of the New York Public Library.

In 1937, when the above photo was taken, oysters were so plentiful that they’d commonly be seen piled up along the waterways and outside of the restaurants that served them. Later, when reefs were dredged up or covered in silt and the water quality was too poor for oysters to regenerate, the reefs began to precipitously decline. Like the Coney Island Creek now, New York Harbor was toxic and nearly lifeless for more than 50 years until the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, which prohibited dumping waste and raw sewage into the harbor.

The Billion Oyster Project partners with restaurants thought New York who donate their shells to the program after eating the oysters. Once the shells are collected, oyster larvae are placed in the shells and attached to the surface where they will then grow to become oysters themselves.

Maison Premiere oyster bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn donates its leftover oyster shells to the Billion Oyster Project to support the reef.

Maison Premiere oyster bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn donates its leftover oyster shells to the Billion Oyster Project to support the reef.

By 2035, the Billion Oyster Project hopes to have distributed 1 billion live oysters around 100 acres of reefs, which the project says will make “the harbor once again the most productive water body in the North Atlantic and reclaim its title as the oyster capital of the world.”

 

Top photo: Tanasia Swift (center), the Community Reefs Regional Manager at the Billion Oyster Project takes oysters from the Paerdegat Basin in Canarsie, Brooklyn to be monitored by students who were invited to learn about the waterway and the role oysters play in it.

All photos © Jake Price.

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  1. Bill Negra
    Sunday, December 15th, 2019
    Our local group, Coastal Steward, is doing similar work on a smaller scale.
    700,000 oysters grown, beach cleanups, marine education.
    Please contact us if there are areas of cooperation. We are headquartered in StonyBrook-Port Jefferson.
  2. Mark Grotzke
    Wednesday, December 25th, 2019
    I saw and enjoyed the exhibit about this project at the Staten Island Ferry terminal, and have also enjoyed reading more information about it here. Good work, & congratulations from Chicago.