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.”
By the 1930s, oysters were deemed too dangerous to eat in New York. A few decades later, they were ecologically extinct from the city’s waterways. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, conditions have improved a lot since the 1970s when, as Mr. Kurlansky recalls, the water was black “with this sort of mother-of-pearl purplish green thing on the surface.” Says Cervino, “I’ll go swimming in this.” As an adolescent, he’d studiously avoided it.
Any restoration effort faces some serious obstacles.
“Once you mess around with nature – if you remove something from the food chain – that space isn’t reserved for it to come back,” says Mr. Kurlansky. “It’s very difficult to reverse these things because the absence has had all sorts of repercussions in nature.”