Imagine strolling down to the river late one afternoon, wading in and scraping up a handful of oversized oysters, then sitting by the riverside, watching the sun set behind the Highlands, shucking and slurping and tossing your shells into a little heap. People in our region were able to do that safely for at least 9,000 years. The shells our regional ancestors left behind — such as those found in the late 1980s in Dobbs Ferry, from around 6950 B.C. — are the oldest evidence of human life in the region.
When the Lenape arrived 3,000 years ago, they would wrap the mollusks in seaweed and bake them in underground pits. When the Dutch arrived in 1609, they encountered the oysters — some measuring nearly a foot long — and learned to bake, roast, and stew them. By the 1700s, oysters had found their way into the earliest American cookbooks, thanks to Albany Dutch recipes for oyster “pye” and cornmeal-rolled oysters; by the late 1800s they were one of the few foods enjoyed both by socialites in Victorian mansions and dock workers in underground oyster cellars.
At its peak, the Hudson River Estuary had 220,000 acres of oyster beds, stretching from New York Harbor all the way north to Ossining. They fed us well, but more importantly, they bolstered the entire ecosystem of the estuary. George Jackman, the Habitat Restoration Manager at Riverkeeper, tells us, “The area was teeming with life, almost a profusion of life in every direction. What the coral reef is to the tropics, the oyster reefs were for us.” But by 1927, after a few decades of overharvesting, industrial pollution, and improper waste management — a 1924 New York Times editorial estimated that 14 million tons of sewage was going into the Hudson River per year — this 9,000-year-old resource had disappeared.
Today, the Billion Oyster Project (BOP), a program based on Governors Island, is working to bring 100 of those 220,000 acres of oyster beds back, along with one billion oysters by 2035. A small team of experts supported by volunteers and a large team of maritime vocational students at the New York Harbor School, collect many tons of oyster shells from restaurants throughout the city, cure the shells for a year, and then populate them with baby oysters in baths before introducing them to the river around man-made reefs. To date, the project has introduced 30 million oysters into New York Harbor across seven acres of oyster beds.
Recently, at a panel discussion about oysters at the Brooklyn Historical Society, Ann Fraioli, Director of Education for the Billion Oyster Project, explained the importance of their work: “When you put oyster reefs back in the water, biodiversity flocks to it.”
She and her partner on the panel — food historian and author of The Big Oyster, Mark Kurlansky — noted that oysters filter nitrogen from the water as they feed. Excess nitrogen from pollutants causes algae blooms, which deplete oxygen and create “dead zones” where marine life can’t survive. The more oysters can filter the water, the healthier it is for themselves and other species. In his book, Kurlansky writes, “the original oyster population of New York Harbor was capable of filtering all of the water in the harbor in a matter of hours.”
Oysters also help with carbon sequestration. They absorb carbon from the atmosphere to make their shells. And reefs provide a habitat — not just for the oysters, but for all manner of forage fish, invertebrates, and shellfish — that also serves as a natural barrier against erosion and storm surge.
So, let’s do this further upriver, right? Storm protection, biodiversity, river filtration, future food source — aphrodisiac?
Oysters like to live in brackish water, a little salty and a little fresh. According to Kurlansky, “from the southern tip of Manhattan until somewhere near what is now the Town of Newburgh, the water remains salty enough for oysters and many other species.”
In 2010, the Oyster Restoration Research Project, (a precursor of BOP) along with partner organizations as part of a consortium, began restoring oysters near the Tappan Zee Bridge, but in the spring of 2011 that part of the river absorbed so much melt-water runoff that it became totally fresh for two weeks, killing all 50,000 of the young oysters. A small quantity of older, wild oysters was found very much alive, however, puzzling everyone. A short time later, surveyors were measuring the potential impact of the Mario Cuomo Bridge project and were shocked to find 8 acres of oyster reef and around 65 million wild oysters; they had survived each spring freshwater deluge, and a few generations of pollution around the Tappan Zee Bridge — descendants of the oysters that indigenous people ate thousands of years ago. We still don’t know exactly why this particular batch of wild oysters has survived when most of the others died a century ago, but according to Helene Hetrick of BOP, “This research is happening now as part of a project with the Hudson River Foundation and the University of New Hampshire. It is the second year of the study.”
Moving forward with the Mario Cuomo Bridge project meant the displacement of all of those wild oyster reefs. The DEC awarded the permit to the Thruway Authority to continue construction under the condition that New York State restore that habitat. So far, five acres of oyster reef restoration were completed near the bridge in 2018 through a partnership with the NYS Thruway Authority, BOP, and other stakeholders — the single largest restoration project to date. BOP also installed three “nursery” sites to “increase the number of oysters reproducing in our estuary.”
We caught up with Fraioli again as she pedaled away on her morning commute. “Contractors installed 422 BOP gabions (mesh boxes with empty shells) there, and there were enough wild oyster larvae in the area to stick to all of them,” she said. “The last time we went out in the fall they were doing very well. We encountered oysters of different sizes, which suggests there have been multiple successful spawning events.”
Jackman of Riverkeeper says, “we still haven’t reached a critical mass yet. Restoring these reefs is the most important thing we can do for the estuary, but it is expensive. I would say about $250,000 per acre.” And, there are other problems. According to Hetrick, we can forget about eating them in our lifetime. “As long as we are using ‘combined overflow’ sewage systems — in which, during heavy rainfall, sewage tanks overfill and route the excess sewage into the river,” she explains, “the oysters will be absorbing toxins that they cannot filter out.”
Jackman tells us these systems are still being run in the harbor and at various points along the river. The Hudson has been cleaned a great deal since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, as well as a ruling in 2002 that ordered General Electric to dredge up their PCB mess, but there is a long way to go. According to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, “1.6 billion [dollars] will be needed to maintain the water quality throughout the Hudson Valley in the next 20 years.”
In January’s State of the State address, Governor Cuomo proposed a $3 billion “Revive Mother Nature” Bond Act for investing in environmental restoration and flood reduction. He first announced the idea back in September, kick-starting with an initial pledge of $2.88 million for oyster-reef restoration and lowering a 275-pound gabion filled with baby oysters into the harbor. His environmental commitment is giving those like Jackman hope — he also mentioned the recent initiative to protect 4,000 acres of open space in the Hudson Valley — but Jackman advises us all to do our part: “It’s like that quote from The Lorax,” he says.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”