Waterfront Museum in Red Hook, on the Hudson River. Photo by Steve McGill

Oysters To The Rescue, Again and Again…

by Deirdre Towers

The Billion Oyster Project caught my attention as a romantic attempt to salvage the Hudson River. And it’s working! The Hudson River is reportedly the cleanest it’s been in 50 years.

28 million oyster shells recycled from 75 restaurants. have been planted in NYC Harbor. The oyster shells filter the water, removing some of the nitrogen dumped into the river from septic tanks — thereby reducing oxygen in water — by absorbing it into their exoskeleton.

Imagine 220 acres of oyster beds. That’s how much of a natural seafood farm the Hudson River was in the 1600s. The early NYC settlers, European immigrants on the land occupied by Lenape, Rockaway and Canarsie Indians, ate oysters as casually as we eat roasted peanuts. By the 1890s, the oyster beds were depleted. The river reeked; any mother would freak at the notion of her child taking a dip in it.

Finally, in 1948, “The Clean Water Act (CWA) established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters. Called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Act was significantly reorganized and expanded in 1972.”

Unfortunately, the river now is still not clean enough yet for us to eat the oysters growing in The Hudson. The oyster project is concerned with restoring a habitat to the river, protecting the shorelines against erosion, filtering the water, rather than food production. Brought out by ferry to Governor’s Island’s, the oyster shells gathered from restaurants compost for a year before they are added to man made reefs.

I volunteered for the Billion Oyster Project this fall, one of 9,000 volunteers to date. What a labor intensive endeavor this project is. It’s satisfying though to know that you’ve been pro-active, mingled with do-gooders of all ages and revved up the engines of change. I needed hot water therapy for my back after climbing the compost heaps, hauling shells down, cleaning the shells in 5 barrels of water and then dropping them into wire baskets that will be added to a 28 acre reef in the Bronx. It’s valuable to realize just how complicated solutions to pollution are. The armchair activist becomes a bit sheepish after three hours of labor.

Certainly there must be a faster system? Are there less expensive ways to filter rivers? Maybe, but how great to be reusing the oysters that would just end up in the trash or used for chicken feed booster, or garden fertilizer. The oysters are picked up at no cost to the restaurants. What business could say no to that?

The Billion Oyster Project politely throws a challenge to the Department of Environmental Protection to deal with the sewer overflows and bow to the well thought out recommendations of The Riverkeeper. Not alone, other non-profits across the country are also championing oysters. The Oyster Recovering Program in Maryland lists an impressive array of partners.

The Bay Back Bag reports that, “Historically, oysters could filter the Chesapeake Bay’s entire water volume in less than a week. Today, with 1% of the oyster population left in the Chesapeake Bay, it would take oysters nearly a year.” Fascinatingly, they add that, “Oysters eat by pumping large volumes of water through their body. Water is pumped through the oyster’s gills by the beating of cilia. Plankton, algae and other particles become trapped in the mucus of the gills. From there these particles are transported to the oyster’s mouth and esophagus to be eaten, then to the stomach to be digested.”

A bedraggled oyster shell volunteer might yearn for a cup of water. With heightened sensitivity of what it takes to filter water, one might be a bit wary of sipping. But NYC is famous for the quality of its drinking water.

The Ashokan reservoir, in Ulster County, N.Y., provides drinking water to New York City courtesy of a 6,000-mile network of pipes, shafts and subterranean aqueducts operating for the most part on gravity alone. 9 million thirsty souls in NYC think nothing of the journey that their water has to travel.

Unlike The Standells, we don’t actually love that dirty water, now do we? SO…be a sport and help these ambitious non-profits to give us a river to swim in, oysters to slurp, and a few more romantic notions.

Yeah, down by the river
Down by the banks of the river Charles

(aw, that’s what’s happenin’ baby)
That’s where you’ll find me
Along with lovers, muggers, and thieves

(aw, but they’re cool, too)
Well I love that dirty water



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Deirdre Towers

Deirdre Towers

Writer/Choreographer produced LA CHANA, the award-winning documentary, the Dance on Camera Festival (1994–2012), and Bell 8 Installations.