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Billion Oyster Project

Updated: Apr 21

One of the most inspiring events of the New York Climate Week taking place between Sep 17-24 2023, was the invitation to visit the Billion Oyster Project in New York. Billion Oyster Project is a nonprofit organization on a mission to restore oyster reefs to New York Harbor through public education initiatives.


I joined a group of 1000OceanStartUp coalition members on a boat early in the morning from Battery Park taking us to Governor Island to learn about the background of this initiative, their operations and results to date.



Why are Oysters important?


Oysters are bivalves and a very promising aquatic species gaining attention in the solution landscape of Sustainable Aquaculture, that focuses on solving the food security challenge for a growing population as the fish stocks are being depleted and 3 billion people rely on the ocean as primary source for protein. Oysters are "ecosystem engineers", a category of species that create or significantly modifies its environment. They provide habitat and protection for many marine species and their young, have the ability to filter water - up to 50 gallons a day (!) and they can help shield shorelines - including the New York City shorelines from storm damage.



Liberty Island once was called Oyster Island


Oysters were once plentiful in the waters around New York City, and Liberty Island was known as Oyster Island due to the abundance of oysters in the area; 220,000 acres of wild oyster reefs, like coral reefs, sustained a vibrant marine ecosystem. The water was naturally purified but early New Yorkers quickly discovered the tastiness of the oyster protein, and over harvesting, pollution, and habitat destruction led to a significant decline in the oyster population, ultimately resulting in their near extinction in the region.


The consequences of this decline were multifaceted. Ecologically, oysters play a crucial role in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems. They filter water, provide habitat for other marine species, and stabilize shorelines. The loss of oysters had detrimental effects on water quality and the overall balance of the ecosystem.


Economically, the decline of the oyster population impacted industries reliant on oysters, such as fishing and seafood markets. It also affected the livelihoods of those who depended on oyster harvesting for their income. Additionally, culturally, oysters were once a staple food in New York City, enjoyed by people from all walks of life. The loss of this cultural and culinary tradition was significant for the city's residents.


Meet part of the Solution; Murray and Pete


The initiaters of the Billion Oyster Project, Murray and Pete, met at The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, where Murray served as Director and Pete taught Aquaculture. The two found that when students are given real responsibility, like helping to restore a degraded New York Harbor, they rise to the occasion with great enthusiasm.


Billion Oyster Project expanded on that idea — offering public school students, volunteers, community scientists and restaurants the opportunity to learn about New York City’s rich oyster history and lead the movement to restore it.


Education and Community Engagement is a key to success


Founded on the belief that restoration without education is temporary, and that learning outcomes improve when students have the opportunity to work on real restoration projects, Billion Oyster Project collaborates with public schools. The crew designs STEM curriculum for NYC schools through the lens of oyster restoration, and engages Urban Assembly New York Harbor School students in large-scale restoration projects, collects discarded oyster shells from dozens of NYC restaurants, and engages the local community.



Project Vision


" A future in which New York Harbor is the center of a rich, diverse, and abundant estuary. The communities that surround this complex ecosystem have helped construct it, and in return benefit from it, with endless opportunities for work, education, and recreation. The harbor is a world-class public space, well used and well cared for—our Commons"


Goal - and Results..


Restore one billion oysters to New York Harbor by the year 2035. That's a challenging and inspiring goal! So how are they managing?


Since launching in 2014, the Billion Oyster Project has


  • Restored 122 million oysters across 19 acres of New York Harbor

  • Established 18 reef sites, 9 of which are Billion Oyster Project Field Stations - where New York students and community groups can help build and monitor oyster reefs.

  • Engaged nearly 11,000+ local students in STEM education through restoration work, hands-on Billion Oyster Project curricula, and an annual Student Symposium which celebrates student research on the Harbor.

  • Diverted more than 2 million pounds of discarded shell from landfill to become the foundation for our permanent reefs, through our Shell Collection Program - a recycling program that over 100 NYC restaurants and the public have participated in.

  • Engaged over 15,000 volunteers in hands-on restoration work

  • Adopted the Citizen’s Water Quality Testing Program (CWQT) which tests 40+ water samples collected by community scientists across the city for enterococcus levels.


Summary


Our Ocean Community would love to support any other local community interested in developing a similar restoration project. While we focus on innovation and early ideas to develop into commercial solutions, to attract funding to grow and scale, and for our community members to become passionate about both the ocean and entrepreneurship, this project reminds us that projects can develop, survive and thrive without the obvious goal to go to market. We have also relied on our own effort and means since 2020 when we lunched. We will keep looking out for commercial opportunities for these kinds of projects that promote nature based solutions and habitat restoration, independent on if they show early commercial viability or not. On the other hand, as the Billion Oyster Team confirmed when asked; Short term, the oysters cannot serve as food to humans but looking ahead - and that we always do - the opportunity for New Yorkers to be served an increasing amount of tasty Oysters from the waters around New York is strong - and for those of us who visit New York and like sustainable aquaculture, perhaps we can enjoy oysters provided by the Billion Oyster Project in a near future too.












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