New York City is the former oyster capitol of the world. There was a time when New York Harbor had over 350 square miles of oyster beds, half of the world supply. Street-side oyster vendors were as popular as hot dog carts are today. Local oysters were a delicious treat, they cleaned the waterways and they bolstered aquatic wildlife. But oysters have since disappeared from New York Harbor, mostly because of human intervention. Now, there are new efforts to reintroduce them in Jamaica Bay.
Mark Kurlansky, the author of The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, and Jeffrey Levinton, distinguished professor of ecology and evolution at SUNY Stony Brook, visit The Brian Lehrer Show to talk about the history of oysters in New York Harbor, and plans to reintroduce them.
Listen to the whole show:
Andrea Bernstein: Let's start with a history. I'm very intrigued by this idea of oysters being sold like hot dogs.
Mark Kurlansky: Well, oysters are an animal that lives in brackish water, which is water that's saltier than fresh water but not as salty as the sea. Estuaries of rivers, places where fresh water dumps into sea water are the ideal climate. New Yorkers too easily forget that the five boroughs of New York City are at the magnificent estuary of the Hudson River and the estuary used to be full of oysters.
That means the East River and the Hudson and out in the harbor around Staten Island and Liberty Island and Ellis Island, which used to be called Big and Little Oyster Island. The coast of the Bronx, back when the Bronx had a non-industrial coast, and the Brooklyn coast into Queens and Jamaica...it was all full of oysters. There was this tremendous natural resource that was identified with New York so that, for centuries, if somebody said they were going to New York City, the typical response was 'Enjoy the oysters!' They were sold everywhere.
Bernstein: Until when?
Kurlansky: Until 1927 when the last bed was closed. A process began in the 1880's when they started understanding about germs. There were chronic epidemics in New York history and they never really understood the cause of them. Everybody sort of assumed that it must be caused by foreigners and immigration and poverty. Then they started understanding what really caused things like cholera and developed the ability to trace them. They kept tracing them to oyster beds. One by one, with each disease outbreak, a bed was closed. The last bed, which was in Raritan Bay between Staten Island and New Jersey, was closed in 1927. Then it was over.
Bernstein: When you say 'closed' do you mean they took out all the oysters?
Kurlansky: No, it just became illegal to harvest them. In fact, most of this pollution was from dumping raw sewage. It seems amazing in retrospect that it took centuries to understand that dumping raw sewage in the food supply was unhealthy.
After they closed them, oysters could still live in that water and Joseph Mitchell, The New Yorker writer in the 1950's, in The Bottom of the Harbor, wrote about old oyster families from Staten Island where oystering was the main economic activity. They used to go out in the harbor and just harvest a few for a family celebration and they would all get very sick.
'In Jamaica Bay we've been growing oysters for the last year and half and they grow faster than oysters anywhere else in this region, believe it or not.' Jeffrey Levinton, distinguished professor of ecology and evolution at SUNY Stony Brook,
But then in the 50's, 60's, 70's, really bad things happened to the water; industrial things. Just about anything you could imagine got dumped in from oil refineries and PCB's and heavy metals and napalm...
Kurlansky: The byproducts of manufacturing napalm for the Vietnam War in New Jersey got dumped in, everything got dumped in and it got to a point... I sure remember when the water around New York was kind of black and slick and in places it would be kind of bubbly and not much could live there. Oysters sure couldn't live there.
A lot of this stuff got cleaned up, thanks to the 1972 or 1973 Clean Water Act which mandated the clean up. Unfortunately, they still haven't been able to clean up all the heavy metals and PCB's, but they have cleaned up to the point where oysters can now live. Over the years it was tested and they would find that not only would planted oysters not live, but the shells would get etched with acid in a very short period of time. It's not like that any more. Oysters can live around New York City waters now.
Bernstein: Why are you trying to bring oysters back, Jeffrey Levinton?
Levinton: Oysters have lots of functions. We don't really expect oysters to be eaten in many of New York Harbor waters today. There are just too many toxic substances coming in and they have to be managed. But oysters are very good for the ecosystem for many reasons. One of which is they create a habitat that creates fishes and lots of species. Its just a missing habitat that would be a magnet for many types of crabs and fishes that would come in.
But also oysters process water. They filter water. They suck. They suck in great profusion. They clear water and they would be very useful in very shallow water to clear the algae out of water and make it clear. That would allow eel grass to live. It would also allow lots of other organisms to live on the sea bed and would, to some degree, increase water quality. So there is a great interest in restoring oysters throughout the region.
Bernstein: How do you go about that?
Levinton: It's not easy! One of the biggest problems we have is that oysters are so rare now that we don't have a lot of larvae in the water. If you're down in Chesapeake Bay or further south, there are still enough oysters around that there are lots of larvae in the water that will come and settle on the bottom. But you have to create a habitat first.
Bernstein: Oyster larvae?
Levinton: Oysters have really fantastic sex. They first grow up as males and then they turn into females, and both the males or females spawn gametes in the water and they fuse and form a larvae and that larvae sits in the water for three weeks and swims around and that larvae is what's essential to settle on a hard substratum.
To make an oyster reef, you first have to have a hard bottom. Oyster shell is the best. Then you have to have reasonably clear water. Oysters can't have too much algae in the water. They settle down, they attach to the shells and then they start growing. Then they have to reproduce.
Bernstein: How do you get an oyster to reproduce?
Levinton: You don't have to do much! And in fact in Jamaica Bay we've been growing oysters for the last year and half and they grow faster than oysters anywhere else in this region believe it or not. They grow up, they become sexually mature and they spawn out. You just give them healthy water and a good bottom and enough food and they will grow and reproduce on their own. But you have to have enough oysters in the water to provide enough larvae so they will settle, so you can get sustainable reefs. Just having one oyster is not enough or two oysters. You have to have enormous populations to start with. That's the problem, kick starting it.
'Oysters have really fantastic sex. They first grow up as males and then they turn into females, and both the males or females spawn gametes in the water and they fuse and form a larvae.' Jeffrey Levinton, distinguished professor of ecology and evolution at SUNY Stony Brook
Kurlansky: You have to have enough lime content in the water, right?
LevintonYou really need a bottom that's hard. The simplest way of doing that is putting a lot of oyster shells down. But now in New York Harbor, even oyster shell is limiting because unless you have live oyster growing, the shell just deteriorates. You have to have a living reef to sustain a reef and get it going.
Bernstein: How far away from New York do you have to go before you can eat the oysters?
Levinton: In Eastern Long Island Sound there are very active oystering fisheries going on.
Bernstein: Orchard Beach is on the Long Island Sound but I don't know if I'd want to eat the oysters from there.
Levinton: Maybe not from there. There are a few poor, pathetic oysters living on Orchard Beach. But there is active oystering in central Long Island Sound and even as far west as Greenwich. You may know that Greenwich, Connecticut recently had its oyster fishery re-opened.
I would say that Jamaica Bay will be for our grandchildren.