Oysters Seeded Beneath the Mario C. Cuomo Bridge

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by Barrett Seaman – 

On a hot mid-summer day, while giant cranes and barges went about building the Mario C. Cuomo Bridge above, staff from the Billion Oyster Project oversaw the placement of 422 steel ”gabion” cages, each containing nearly 250 pounds of shucked oyster shells, in three locations along the riverbed around the new bridge’s stanchions.

The gabions (pronounced “gay-be-on”) are designed to attract oyster larvae that float along with the river currents and tides until they sense the presence of oyster molecules and then sink down to join the throng—thus replacing the empty shells with new live ones. Within three years, they will build up a substantial reef.

The latest and most effective gabion design sets the old shells around a funnel-shaped open space inside a steel mesh cage that will eventually disintegrate. The gabions are built by volunteer high school students from around the metro area and were shipped up river in late July. Some 70 New York-area restaurants have contributed their old shells. Thus, anyone who made oysters a part of a city dining-out experience might justly take credit for contributing to the restoration.

The Billion Oyster Project has so far planted 25 million oysters, using the services of more than 6,000 high school students and 9,000 other volunteers. Its scientists have taught related ecology to students at 70 schools in the area.

New York Harbor, including the lower Hudson River, once teemed with oysters. They not only fed the financier fat cats who ate at Wall Street saloons after the stock exchange closed for the day, they also cleaned their own watery habitat, filtering nitrogen and staving off “dead zones” that killed off all manner of sea life. They promoted biodiversity and even mitigated the effects of storm surges, as the shell-based reefs slowed the flow of wind-generated flooding. And they did it all without moving an inch.

Over time, however, human enterprise gradually choked them off. Bridges and tunnels crushed the reefs and pollution took its toll. With no oysters to police the waters, New York Harbor and the lower Hudson grew dirtier and more dangerous.

For the past four years, the New York Harbor Foundation has been atoning for mankind’s collective sins by re-stocking the oyster reefs all around the harbor. A coalition of scientists, environmentalists and oyster experts including the Hudson Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson, the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, Cornell University, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others has been stocking reefs all around New York Harbor. Similar reefs have been planted in Jamaica Bay, which feeds the Hudson and East Rivers, and off Coney Island.

With his father’s name on the new bridge (which caused the displacement of some of the oyster beds to begin with) Governor Andrew Cuomo threw his weight behind the project. State funding comes from one of the many community grants parceled out by the Thruway Authority under its existing $4 billion bridge budget.

Private enterprise has contributed to the effort as well. Long Island brewer Blue Point Brewing Company gave $20,000 to the Billion Oyster Project and in September will be launching a new brand, Good Reef Ale (“a dry-hopped Belgian Ale with a light body and clean citrus character”).

“For every pint of Good Reef Ale sold,” the company has declared, “five oysters will be restored to Billion Oyster Project’s Community Oyster Reefs in New York City. Those five oysters can filter up to 250 gallons of water per day.”

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