Oyster an environmental 'hero'

2012-09-03 11:33
Oysters have been shown to be able to contribute to marine environmental health. (Boris Horvat, AFP)

Oysters have been shown to be able to contribute to marine environmental health. (Boris Horvat, AFP)

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New York - On a summer morning, marine biologist Ray Grizzle reaches into the waters of the Bronx River estuary and pulls up an oyster. The 2-year-old female is "good and healthy".

He grabs another handful and gets more good news. "This is a really dynamic area: Live oysters, reproducing!" the University of New Hampshire scientist said.

Grizzle holds up a glistening mollusc. He is standing waist-deep in the murky estuary littered with old tires, bottles, shopping carts and rank debris. A gun was once found.

Marine scientists like him, planners and government officials say millions of molluscs planted in waters off New York and other cities could go a long way toward cleaning up America's polluted urban environment. The oyster and other shellfish can slurp up toxins and eliminate decades of dirt.

Landscape architect Kate Orff has a name for the work she does at her Scape firm: "Oyster-tecture". Orff is designing a park and a living reef for the mouth of Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal, where oysters could take hold and help filter one of the nation's most polluted waterways.


"My new hero is the oyster, with its biological power," Orff said.

Oyster-tecture is a 21st-century approach to creating new waterfront infrastructures where long-gone shellfish can be brought back.

Construction has begun on a new pier area that is to host Orff's reef. In her Manhattan office, she holds up a tangle of fuzzy black ropes that will be attached to the Brooklyn pier and filled with shellfish, which need to latch onto something to survive - whether a rock, dead shell or synthetic object.

The Oyster Restoration Research Project, a New York-based non-profit umbrella group, partners with the NY/NJ Baykeeper ecology advocate working at the Bronx site, and the US Army Corps of Engineers that built an oyster reef on Governors Island off Manhattan.

While oysters are cultivated around the world, the US has some of the best regeneration programmes, said Bill Goldsborough, director of fisheries programme at Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis, Maryland.

The bay is a centre of natural oyster growth, and regeneration is thriving just outside urban Annapolis and in Baltimore harbour.

Scientists also are trying to rejuvenate the oyster population in the Hudson River near Yonkers, north of New York, where explorer Henry Hudson spotted oysters in 1609.


"Having oysters improves the whole aquatic habitat, attracting fish and other marine life to the area," said Dennis Suszkowski, the science director of the non-profit Hudson River Foundation.

If the water temperature, currents, chemistry and other conditions are right, the bivalve can break down the pollution and thrive. But while suitable for cleanup work, they should not be eaten and poachers should not harvest polluted oysters and sell them for profit.

Under Governor Chris Christie, New Jersey banned oyster restoration in 2010 in waters classified as contaminated for shellfish, citing public health.

In New York City, oyster restoration projects were started about seven years ago, with the city Department of Parks initiating the one in the Bronx - a 9m-long artificial reef made of rubble, old shells and hundreds of molluscs.

"It's so shocking that we're out there in the South Bronx and oysters are thriving - shocking to people who wouldn't put their little toe in the water for fear of how polluted it is," said Marit Larson, a water management expert at the department's Natural Resources Group.

Larson said the aim of what she calls "ecological engineering" is to create hundreds of acres of reefs in the next decades, populated with molluscs that form naturally spawning colonies. Funding for the projects comes from private and government sources. A 0.4ha bed with up to one million oysters costs at least $50 000 to plant and manage.
Read more on:    environment  |  marine life

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