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Habitats: Oyster Reefs

Oyster ReefsOyster reefs were once so established in the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary that, as Mark Kurlansky writes in The Big Oyster, “The combination of having reputably the best oysters in the world in what had become unarguably the greatest port in the world made New York City for an entire century the world’s oyster capital.” These oyster reefs performed an important ecological function, filtering our waterways and providing important habitat. Overfishing, dredging, disease, and water pollution during the Industrial Revolution, however, caused numbers to plummet, effectively eliminating reefs by the early 20th Century.

Since the 1970s, water quality has improved significantly, allowing us to think about the possibilities for restoring the Estuary. Beginning in 2000 with oyster gardening, NY/NJ Baykeeper, the Harbor School, and the River Project began efforts to see if these habitats could be restored. In early 2009, when a draft version of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary Comprehensive Restoration Plan was published, the Hudson River Foundation convened a panel of experts from around the country to form the Oyster Subcommittee of the NY-NJ Harbor & Estuary Program’s Restoration Work Group. One major recommendation of the group was to pilot oyster reefs throughout the harbor, focusing on understanding growth and development, disease prevalence, and influences of and on the surrounding environment.

A large pilot reef effort was launched in 2010 (following previous reefs in Keyport and Navesink, New Jersey, which have since been removed). A large partnership of scientists, non-government, and government organizations—led by the Hudson River Foundation, the US Army Corps of Engineers, New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, the New York - New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program, the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, and others—kicked off the project by placing the first rock and shell off of Governors Island in New York, one of six experimental reefs. Each of these reefs was seeded with over 50,000 oyster spat. These spat, or baby oysters, were grown by students of the New York Harbor School in a FLUPSY (FLowing UPweller SYstem) located on Governors Island. Through a habitat restoration grant, the New York-New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program, in partnership with NEIWPCC, provided funding for the two years of monitoring of these reefs as a feasibility study for future restoration potential.

After two years of monitoring, clear differences between sites can be seen.  Having demonstrated the ability for oysters to survive, grow, and reproduce in a constructed reef setting in the Estuary, the partnership is pursuing a larger scale reef at Soundview Park, one of the most promising sites. In addition, Baykeeper will be launching a reef project at Naval Station Earle in Sandy Hook Bay (NJ) in 2013. You can read more about the project by downloading the reports and Tidal Exchange issue below. The array of partners ranging from students learning through first-hand experience, to researchers at academic institutions, continue to meet as the Oyster Subcommittee and plan on how to improve estuarine habitat, one oyster at a time. Check our calendar for upcoming meetings.

  • Oyster Habitat Restoration Monitoring and Assessment Handbook – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration | PDF (3.5 MB)

  • Oyster Restoration Research Project Final report of HEP/NEIWPCC funding (2012) | PDF

  • Oyster Restoration research Project Technical Report Phase I: Experimental Oyster Reef Development and Performance Results (2011) | PDF

  • Oyster Restoration Research Project Final Technical Report Phase I: Experimental Oyster Reef Development and Performance Results (2013) | PDF

Rocking The Boat - volunteersRocking the Boat volunteers and students of the New York Harbor School helped to monitor experimental reefs

Members of the Oyster Restoration Research Partnership:
Hudson River Foundation, NY/NJ Baykeeper, US Army Corps of Engineers, The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, the Harbor Foundation, Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, the NY-NJ Harbor & Estuary Program, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, NYC Department of Environmental Protection, US Environmental Protection Agency, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation – Hudson River Program, Hudson River Park Trust, NOAA Restoration Center, Bart Chezar (Bay Ridge Flats Oyster Project), and Rocking the Boat.


NY/NJ Baykeeper Oyster Restoration Research Partnership

Hudson River Foundation

The River Project

The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School


New York/New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program • 17 Battery Place, Suite 915 • New York, NY 10004
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