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Saved from Shuckers, Oysters Fight Rising Seas

NEW YORK HARBOR—It’s an odd scene in New York Harbor. On the banks of tree-lined Governors Island, a small group has gathered to watch a tiny gray boat anchor itself in the water. Two figures lean over the side of the vessel, their red life vests standing out against the slate waves. Each clutches several…

SOAR, or Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration, a partnership between the Nature Conservancy and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Born out of the coronavirus pandemic, the program began as a way to prevent farmed oysters from going to waste while restaurants were still shut down. SOAR purchases oysters from farmers who would otherwise be unable to sell them, then partners with local oyster restoration projects to return the shellfish to their natural habitats.

That has built-in benefits for coastal ecosystems. Oyster reefs help clean and filter the water, provide natural habitat for fish, and buffer coastlines against the erosion caused by wave action and sea-level rise.

SOAR’s New York partner is a program known as the Billion Oyster Project. Founded in 2014 by Murray Fisher and Pete Malinowski, it aims to restore 1 billion oysters to New York Harbor over the next 15 years. So far, it’s installed 14 reefs across the city.

This recent batch is likely the last bunch of oysters to be planted in New York City through the SOAR project—at least for the time being. With the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in full swing, the city has largely reopened, and restaurants have resumed serving shellfish.

But the program will likely continue in other forms, according to Jennifer Browning, director of Pew’s U.S. oceans program. SOAR is working to establish a permanent market, providing funding for oyster restoration projects to purchase otherwise “unsellable” oysters from farmers.

Even without the pressure of the pandemic, “anywhere from 15 to 20% of all the oysters grown by oyster farmers can’t be sold to restaurants—they’re too big or ugly or flat,” Browning told E&E News. “But if those oyster growers knew that that 20%, they could sell that, that’s a huge benefit to them—and a huge benefit to the oyster restoration community.”

A global decline

New York Harbor was once an oyster capital of the country.

“Back in the day, here in New York City, oysters were sold on street corners like pretzels are today,” said Rob Jones, global lead for the Nature Conservancy’s aquaculture program.

But over the last century, they’ve largely disappeared. In New York, that’s mainly because of pollution. As the city grew and developed, more and more sewage was diverted into the harbor. Eventually, it became unsafe to harvest oysters, and the industry shuttered.

In years since, “there are a lot of other reasons why oysters didn’t continue to thrive,” said Katie Mosher, the Billion Oyster Project’s director of programs. Dredging, used to deepen and expand the harbor, killed many of them off. Disease and poor water quality played a role, too.

It’s not a problem that’s unique to New York.

Oyster populations have plummeted up and down U.S. coastlines and elsewhere around the globe. They were decimated by overharvesting, pollution, disease and habitat destruction. In a 2011 study published in BioScience, experts estimated that about 85% of the world’s oyster reefs have vanished over the last century.

Today, scientists and environmentalists are working to bring them back.

The ecosystem benefits are clear, Jones said. Oysters provide a natural cleaning service, filtering toxins out of the water. And their clustered reefs become natural homes for fish and other marine animals, just as coral reefs do in the tropics.

Like coral reefs, they also protect coastlines from erosion, breaking up waves before they hit the shore.

It’s an increasingly attractive service as climate change warms the planet. Sea-level rise is a growing threat to coastal communities worldwide, eroding shorelines and worsening floods. At the same time, global warming is making hurricanes more intense. That increases the odds of extreme storm surge and major damage to the coast.

With their coastlines flooding and their beaches steadily washing away, coastal communities are making increasingly costly investments in shoreline protections. Multibillion-dollar interventions, including building sea walls and diverting major rivers, have recently been proposed, in places such as Louisiana, South Carolina and New York.

At the same time, there’s a growing push in some coastal communities for cheaper, more sustainable interventions. “Living shorelines” offer one alternative. These are naturally cultivated coastal buffers, made up of sand, rock, marshlands and vegetation—and, sometimes, oyster reefs.

The combination of these natural protections, when put together, tends to make the biggest difference, said Antonio Rodriguez, an expert on coastal geology at the University of North Carolina. In the Southeast, for instance, where beaches are often soft and easily eroded, “the iconic configuration would be to have upland, which is a forest, and then salt marsh, and then oyster reefs,” he said.

Where natural oyster reefs have largely disappeared, experts say putting them back may help restore some natural protection. And case studies on rapidly eroding shorelines—for instance, in Alabama and Bangladesh—have shown that it can actually work.

It’s not a new idea—communities up and down the coasts have been experimenting with oyster restoration and living shorelines for decades. But the concept has gained attention in recent years

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