There were once billions of oysters in the waters surrounding New York City. They helped support a varied and vast number of aquatic species, but they were also an easy meal for the city’s quickly growing population. By the dawn of the 20th century, the oysters that once filled the harbor were all but gone. Pete Malinowski ’06, co-founder and Executive Director of the Billion Oyster Project (BOP), is working to improve the city’s water quality and reintroduce aquatic biodiversity with the help of the mollusks that once called the harbor home.
Malinowski grew up around the water, working at his parents’ oyster farm. He learned not only about the science behind the mollusks and the intricacies of captaining a boat—he’s certified by the Coast Guard—but he also learned to think big when it came to problem solving.
Why use oysters to help build aquatic biodiversity? For starters, oysters have a disproportionately positive affect on their environment. An adult oyster is able to filter and clean up to 50 gallons of water per day, removing dirt and nitrogen pollution, as well as algae. Like coral reefs, oyster reefs provide habitats for thousands of other aquatic species, and their beds form natural berms that help to protect shorelines against erosion.
Founded in 2014, the Billion Oyster Project is located on Governors Island. Along with a goal of cleaning the water, it aims to make the city’s waterfront a more accessible and active place—as well as one that is better protected from the fury of Mother Nature. (It gets much of its funding from post-Hurricane Sandy programs.)
The organization couldn’t do what it does without students from a neighboring public school, New York Harbor School, where Malinowski was teaching when he got the idea for the Billion Oyster Project.
It bothered him that, in New York, access to certain areas of the city’s waterfront had been off limits to school-aged children. In recent years, more luxury housing is being built near the shoreline, but it’s a different story if you’re trying to get a park built or get waterfront access for public school students (which city officials deem too dangerous), Malinowski says.
Providing students access to the waterfront is why the Harbor School is so important, he says. Students have been involved with the project since its inception, working with experts in various marine-centric fields and learning to breed and grow oysters. In addition to the school’s typical course load, students learn to SCUBA dive, conduct aquatic research, drive boats, and engineer and weld aquatic equipment.
To build oyster reefs, they start with oyster shells discarded by city restaurants—they collect about five tons of shells weekly. Their haul is cleaned and cured then placed in large laboratory tanks alongside live oysters. The idea is to encourage the mollusks to spawn.
“We trick them into believing it’s summertime by warming up the water,” Malinowski says. “In this room, it’s always July.”
From there, the eggs and sperm combine and grow. Eventually the larvae attach to the discarded shells. (To the naked eye, larvae resemble specks of dust floating in water.) With several larvae attached, the shells are then transported to the nurseries at the Billion Oyster Project’s Governors Island dock.
“Clusters [of shells] are better for reef building because they go in all directions,” Malinowski says.
Once the clusters grow large enough—which can take from six months to a few years—they are transported to one of the organization’s oyster reef locations located in the East River.
“You can’t learn creative problem solving without a complex problem to solve creatively.”—Pete Malinowski ’06
The reefs themselves are created by oysters growing in metal cages designed and welded by the Harbor School students.
Reefs have gone up in Canarsie, Coney Island, and along other parts of the Brooklyn shoreline and northern Manhattan. One of those spots, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, is close to a drain that pours storm water—and occasionally raw sewage—into the river, but the area is teeming with life.
“What we found here, when we pull up the cages is that they’re covered with living things. In the summer there will be blue crab in every tray. There are anemones, worms, fish. And in the winter, this whole basin fills up with diving ducks, feeding off the trays,” Malinowski says.
This site is very important to the Billion Oyster Project because it’s a channel, which translates to calmer waters. That means when the oysters spawn naturally, the larvae swim around in the area for a few days, and eventually bleed out into the surrounding water.
“Otherwise, when the oysters spawn, all the larvae get swept out to sea,” Malinowski says.
His students return regularly, piloting the boats around the harbor, diving to measure the growth of the oysters, and keeping an eye on the water-monitoring equipment, which measures variables such as turbidity (haziness), temperature, pH level, and salinity.
In addition to the Harbor School students, thousands of city students from more than 75 public middle schools and high schools have participated in experiential learning through the Billion Oyster Project since the project began.
With a goal of implanting one billion oysters along the shoreline in the next 20 years—the estimated number of mollusks it will take for the oysters to be self-producing—it helps to have plenty of bright young minds helping in the effort, Malinowski says.
“You can’t learn creative problem solving without a complex problem to solve creatively,” he says. “No matter what industry it is, you have to be able to show up on time every day, communicate well verbally, work proactively, be a creative problem-solver, and be a good team player. Those skills are universal—everyone needs them—and they’re really hard to teach in a classroom environment.”
For more information on the Billion Oyster Project and how you can support their environmental and educational efforts, visit www.billionoysterproject.org.