Thursday, August 20, 2009
By Amy Pearl
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.