NYC Moves 50,000 Oysters to Jamaica Bay

NEW YORK––Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), in partnership with the Billion Oyster Project, announced that a project is underway that will see the installation of 50,000 oysters in Jamaica Bay – the largest single installation of breeding oysters in New York City.

The New York/New Jersey Harbor was once blanketed by oysters, but due to over harvesting, dredging and pollution, they became functionally extinct decades ago. Oysters are widely recognized as a key component of a healthy marine ecosystem as they filter pollutants from the water, help to protect wetlands and shoreline from erosion and storm surge, and provide habitat for communities of fish and other aquatic organisms. Once the oyster installation is complete, water quality in the vicinity of the beds will be monitored for anticipated improvements in dissolved oxygen, nitrogen removal and turbidity. In addition, the beds will be evaluated for the recruitment of new oysters. The project is being funded with a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Interior, which is administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF). DEP is contributing $375,000. The Billion Oyster Project and students from the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School will assist with the installation and monitoring of the oyster beds.

“This oyster bed will serve multiple purposes – protecting our wetlands from erosion, naturally filtering our water and providing a home for our sea dwellers are just a few. More broadly, this oyster bed is a small but necessary step in our broader OneNYC commitment to create a more sustainable and more resilient City. I’d like to thank the Billion Oyster Project and the students of the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School for assisting us in the installation of this oyster bed,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“Jamaica Bay is one of our city’s greatest natural assets and supports vital natural resources of regional significance,” said Daniel Zarrilli, Senior Director for Climate Policy and Programs and Chief Resilience Officer for the Office of the Mayor.“Today’s announcement is a critical step in the effort to restore healthy oyster populations in the bay. Not only are we protecting critical wetland habitats and demonstrating the resiliency dividend of natural infrastructure as we are preparing the waterfront communities around Jamaica Bay for the impacts of climate change, we are also building the next generation of environmental stewards. The City’s partnership with the Billion Oyster Project is a great example of the creative collaboration that is necessary to enhance the resiliency of the city’s waterways.”

“Jamaica Bay is one of New York City’s most treasured natural environments, and we are excited to begin work with our partners on the establishment of the largest oyster bed installation in the Bay to date,” said DEP Acting Commissioner Vincent Sapienza. “Water quality monitoring and prior pilot projects show that oysters can survive in Jamaica Bay, and we hope this research effort will demonstrate that recruitment of new oysters and the establishment of a self-sustaining oyster population is within reach.”

“Restored oyster reefs are the foundation of an ecologically robust estuary, and participating in the launch of this effort alongside DEP, the Hudson River Foundation, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and HDR Inc., is a real thrill,” said Katie Mosher-Smith, Billion Oyster Project’s Restoration Manager. “The participation of skilled young vessel operators and aquaculture technicians from New York Harbor School expands the reach of this environmental effort, building a stronger community that understands the need and has the know-how to sustain restoration of their own heavily urbanized coastline.”

Council Member Costa Constantinides, Chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection, said, “Installing oysters in Jamaica Bay will bring long-lasting ecological, environmental and biological effects to our waterfront. As a city surrounded by water, we must make sure we take care of our greatest resource. The 50,000 oysters will filter pollutants, help prevent erosion, and protect our wetlands. This innovative project will help improve our city’s environment while teaching students about urban ecology and marine life. I thank DEP and the Billion Oyster Project for their leadership, as well as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for this grant.”

The installation will include a central donor bed composed of 50,000 adult and spat-on-shell oysters as well as four smaller receiving beds composed of clam/oyster shell and broken porcelain. The porcelain was harvested from nearly 5,000 inefficient toilets that were recycled from the citywide water conservation program. Having reached reproductive maturity, it is anticipated that the adult oysters will spawn. The resulting fertilized eggs will grow as free-floating larvae in the water column until the young oysters will attach themselves to the shells of the parent oysters on the donor bed or onto any one of the four receiver beds. With successful establishment and recruitment, the donor bed and the receiving beds are anticipated to show a measurable increase in oyster larvae attachment as well as an increase in the growth of mature oysters. Once established, the hope is that the oysters will become self-sustaining, spawning seasonally and providing new recruits.

Existing water quality monitoring at the site of the oyster beds will serve as a baseline for future comparison. This includes temperature, pH, salinity, conductivity, turbidity, dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll. Monitoring will continue for two years after the installation of the beds in order to establish water quality benefits provided by the oysters. Measurements will also be taken to better understand the rate at which the oysters are removing nutrients from the water.

Beginning in 2010, DEP conducted two oyster reintroduction pilot studies within Jamaica Bay – the design and construction of an oyster bed off of Dubos Point, Queens, and the placement of oyster reef balls in Gerritsen Creek, Brooklyn. These pilot projects were conducted to evaluate whether climatic and environmental conditions within the bay are suitable for oyster growth, survival and reproduction. The study also measured how effective the bivalves are at filtering various pollutants that affect the Bay, such as nitrogen, other nutrients, and particulate organic matter.

After four years, an analysis showed that many of the oysters were still alive and appeared healthy. Monitoring results also showed adequate environmental conditions for oyster growth and survival within Jamaica Bay, including water quality within normal tolerances for the eastern oyster. The results also indicated that the oysters had reproduced. In addition, an increase in biodiversity was observed, including many species using the pilot sites for breeding and feeding amongst the establishment of new plants. However, no recruitment of new oysters was observed. It is believed that the lack of recruitment is mainly due to the relatively small size of the pilot sites and the overall lack of oyster populations in and around Jamaica Bay and the New York/New Jersey Harbor.

The oyster bed and reef balls that were placed in Jamaica Bay were small pilot studies to determine if oysters could survive and reproduce. The next step in restoring oysters in Jamaica Bay is to determine the effect of placing larger oyster beds in areas that could protect salt marshes from further erosion while improving water quality. It has been well documented that marshes and shorelines are eroding at an accelerated rate in Jamaica Bay due to a number of changes over time, including dredging and filling and climate change. Efforts are underway to restore some of the lost marshes. This study would test the effectiveness of living shorelines in the form of a relatively large oyster bed to slow erosive forces on these habitats.

Jamaica Bay is a 31-square-mile water body with a broader watershed of approximately 142 square miles, which includes portions of Brooklyn, Queens, and Nassau County. The Bay is a diverse ecological resource that supports multiple habitats, including open water, salt marshes, grasslands, coastal woodlands, maritime shrublands, and brackish and freshwater wetlands. These habitats support 91 fish species, 325 species of birds, and many reptile, amphibian, and small mammal species. To learn more, visit DEP’s Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan which outlines the numerous initiatives DEP has undertaken, along with state and federal partner agencies, environmental advocates, leading educational institutions and community groups, to protect one of the most bountiful wildlife habitats in the Northeastern Unites States. Ongoing initiatives include wastewater treatment plant upgrades, oyster and ribbed mussel pilot restoration projects, wetlands restoration, green infrastructure projects and Geographic Information System mapping.