Experiment aims to reestablish bivalves staggered by pollution, overharvesting, and disease.
On a recent morning in College Point, Queens, just a few blocks from where he grew up, Professor Cervino shows a visitor what he calls “the electric oyster reef project.” He’s installed a series of spiral-shaped bands of metal in the shallow water. At low tide, they jut from the water like giant strands of DNA.
“I had a dream one night of helixes coming out of the water,” he says. In retrospect, the shape “is actually not such a great idea.” But the concept, he says, is.
Solar panels perched atop poles provide the helixes with a low voltage. The current causes a chemical reaction in seawater, and limestone builds up on the electrified metal. The ready supply of shell-building minerals, Cervino says, will help the oysters, decimated here and elsewhere by overharvesting, pollution, and disease. Cervino’s collaborator, Thomas Goreau, president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, has shown that electrification can help damaged coral reefs regenerate. It seems to be helping the oysters here as well, he says. Oysters in mesh sacks at the spirals’ base are alive while control oysters – those farther from the electric field – have all died.
He points to a lime-encrusted bit of metal: “That’s how I know it’s working,” he says. And then he adds, “If we recreated oyster reefs, we’d clear the water.”
This project is part of a larger movement along the East Coast and elsewhere to restore ecosystems drastically altered by human activity. Restoration almost invariably begins with so-called keystone species, the humble filter feeders once so numerous along the eastern seaboard that they cleaned entire bays within days.
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