How New York Is Sustainably Using Their Recycled Oyster Shells

How New York Is Sustainably Using Their Recycled Oyster Shells

Love them or hate them, oysters play a crucial role in our lives. Crassostrea virginica (the Eastern Oyster), once a staple of the Lenape people's diet, is now a world renowned delicacy. When Europeans first arrived in common day New York, many were astonished by the sheer number of oysters living on the coastal shores of its many waterways, giving birth to the oyster harvesting industry. The rapidly expanding population of the New World led to severe overfishing of the once abundant oyster - only 1% of their original population are present today.

plate of oysters shucked open at a restaurant with lemon and sauce waiting to be consumed

The solution seems simple; eliminate or minimize the consumption of oysters. Right? Wrong. There is hope on the horizon, and it doesn't require abstaining from the delicacy.

Once hatched from their microscopic eggs, oysters can spend the first few weeks of their lives as free-floating zooplankton, invisible to the naked eye and lacking their trademark shell. The ones who survive this phase of life are met with another challenge - finding a safe place to anchor itself. The oyster doesn't ask for much - they can tolerate (and actually thrive) in murky water and don't mind being exposed during low tide. However, once they attach themselves to a surface, they are there for life. 

Living Breakwaters, a new project of the New York government, aims to reverse the damage of centuries of overfishing one oyster larvae at a time. The initiative involves partnerships with New York's many restaurants and seafood bars, where post-consumer oyster shells are collected, sanitized and crushed. The remains are then cultured with larval stage oysters, who readily accept the crushed shell pieces as their forever home. Once the little guys settle down and begin to grow their own shells, they are then implanted along the coast and allowed to live their simple mollusk lives (until it's time to harvest them!). This is, in essence, the best way to "recycle" the nearly 1 million oyster half-shells  disposed of every week in New York City. Steadily on its way to a goal of 100 million restored oysters by 2035, Living Breakwaters is serving up hope by the dozen (on a bed of ice and a dash of hot sauce). 

sand reef stretching out into open water

This project is about much more than securing a source of the delicacy; oysters play a crucial role in maintaining water quality as well as the integrity of coastlines. These artificial oyster reefs can serve as a natural levee, reducing coastal damage caused by tropical storms by breaking the impact of waves, quite literally building a living, water-purifying breakwater. Using their siphon to filter up to 50 gallons of seawater daily, oysters work constantly to remove pollutants and excess nutrients from the ocean, helping to maintain cleaner water. Not only do these humble bivalves make waterways safer, they make them cleaner as well. 

By fostering social resilience, encouraging citizen-science, and most importantly, restoring coastlines, Living Breakwaters is doing wonders not only for the oyster connoisseur, but everyone who stands to benefit from the restoration of our natural waterways - which is to say, every single one of us.

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