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.
Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Cambridge, Md., calls oysters “the coral reefs of the East Coast.” Oyster-restoration projects are at various stages in Florida, South Carolina, Chesapeake Bay, New York, and New Jersey. Before European settlement, oyster reefs covered some 350 square miles around New York. Their importance as a species stems from their ability to filter large amounts of water. Depending on its size, an oyster filters between 5 and 50 gallons of water daily. Water now murky with algae and other organic matter was, in earlier times, almost certainly clear.
“I suppose that when [Henry] Hudson sailed through the harbor, you could see right through to the bottom,” says Mark Kurlansky, author of “The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell,” the tale of New York City’s long relationship with the mollusks. Their absence, he says, is “a symbol of how badly we’ve cared for New York.”