The Billion Oyster Project Comes to Rye

DSC 0023Right after the final exam for his seventh-grade life science class, Rye Middle School teacher John Griffin made a long drive into lower Manhattan, transferred to a ferry for Governor’s Island, and faced a rush hour drive back — all to deliver some precious goods back to Rye: ten oysters. 


By Howard Husock


Exisiting Milton Harbor oyster bedsRight after the final exam for his seventh-grade life science class, Rye Middle School teacher John Griffin made a long drive into lower Manhattan, transferred to a ferry for Governor’s Island, and faced a rush hour drive back — all to deliver some precious goods back to Rye: ten oysters. These were not, however, to be eaten on the half-shell. They were small specially treated oyster shells infused with oyster “spat” — tiny young oysters-to-be. They would become part of a significant new, long-term school and community project designed to help increase the oyster population of Blind Brook and Long Island Sound and, at the same time, to clean the waters that once teemed with edible shellfish.   


As they lowered the oysters at the edge of the Milton Boat Basin into a special cage called the Oyster Restoration Station, Griffin and his colleague, eighth-grade physical and earth science teacher Deborah Davis-Galliard, were laying the groundwork for a long-term science project and waxing enthusiastic about the opportunity that awaited their students.


“Our students live in a waterfront community but it’s easy to lose sight of that,” said Griffin, who’s taught at Rye Middle School for the past six years. “Who better to help protect the water and waterfront environment?”


They will do so as part of a program whose arrival in Rye is part of an important regional environmental restoration effort: the Billion Oyster Project, headquartered at the New York Harbor School, a public high school on Governor’s Island. Founded in 2010, the project of the New York Harbor Foundation aims to restore the once-teeming population of oysters in New York harbor and the surrounding area.

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Estimated to have covered 220,000 acres of estuary shoreline at the time Henry Hudson arrived in 1609, the oyster population had dwindled to the point of disappearing. The shellfish once helped to both filter and clean the water, and provided a livelihood for the many Milton “watermen” before sewage was allowed to contaminate the once-pristine waters. 


The Billion Oyster Project has set out to change all that with a goal of covering no fewer than 100 acres of shoreline with a billion oysters, by 2030. A key part of its strategy involves working with middle and high school teachers and students to help install new oyster beds and monitor and track their growth and health. The Project supplies the oysters and the Restoration Station — the “substrata” to which the oysters spat will attach themselves, grow and reproduce. Students, under the supervision of teachers such as Griffin and Davis-Galliard, will monitor the growth of oysters, as well as the cleanliness of the water and the presence of other marine newcomers who might be attracted into the oyster ecosystem. They will report to a central oyster population and water quality site maintained by the Billion Oyster Project — and are encouraged to design their own life science research projects, as well.


Fifty-four New York City public schools are involved in the project, with the Harbor School on Governor’s Island serving as the project headquarters. But Rye Middle School will be the first school outside the city to become part of the project. To date, the BOP has established 92 oyster restoration station sites. It estimates it’s already helped seed some 16.5 million oysters in and around New York harbor  —and, because of the way oysters filter and clean water, helped remove 72,000 tons of the nitrogen that robs water of marine life. It’s even recycled 250,000 pounds of oyster shells — many donated by 45 restaurants — to help form the reefs on which the oyster growth can occur.


Sam Janis, program manager for the Billion Oysters Project schools program, says they are glad to be “establishing a hub for oyster restoration citizen science in Westchester County.” The new site in Rye, he adds, “will greatly increase our understanding of oyster restoration and the potential for recruitment of wild oysters in the broader New York Harbor estuary.” For science teacher Davis-Galliard, “the most important thing is that this will give students the chance to do the work themselves.” Adds Griffin: “It’s a chance for them to use their own waterfront as a way to learn both science and math skills — and to help their community.”


All students involved in the project volunteered to participate. 


In Rye, the BOP can build on an existing population of oysters and other shellfish, which can be spotted, at low tide, along the shores of Blind Brook and on the islands near Milton Harbor. Now they’ll be getting reinforcements in their work of filtering — and cleaning — the water.


Bringing the BOP to Rye took a community effort. This writer learned of the project during a New York Municipal Art Society tour of Staten Island, where oysters are seen as partial protection against another Hurricane Sandy-style storm surge. He mentioned it to Davis-Galliard, whom he knew from their work together on the Rye Board of Assessment Review. She really set the wheels in motion. First, she recruited her colleague John Griffin. To find an appropriate location and to deal with insurance issues affecting the students, they had help from throughout Rye city government and schools — including from Mayor Joe Sack, City Manager Marcus Serrano, City Council member Julie Killian, Ike Kuzio of Rye Recreation Department, Rye Middle School Principal Ann Edwards, and newly-appointed harbormaster George Hogben. Karen Bresolin, who heads American Yacht Club’s Green Committee, helped defray the cost of the oysters themselves, and donated life vests for the students. Says Davis-Galliard: “We are grateful to have had so much help from so many people to bring this great project to Rye.”


It’s worth noting that increasing the oyster population won’t mean a quick return of shellfish harvesting. According to Tracy Brown of Save the Sound, an organization that monitors water quality in Milton Harbor among other locations on the Sound Shore, “Shellfish beds all along the Westchester coastline are closed due to unacceptably high bacteria levels in the water.” Sources, she says, include “human and animal waste,” as well as “old and leaking sewage collection pipes releasing raw sewage into our waterways before reaching a treatment plant.” Although the County has invested millions in upgrading treatment plans in New Rochelle and Mamaroneck, the Blind Brook and Port Chester plants have not been upgraded.”


The Oyster Restoration Station itself will lie in Milton Harbor waters that are themselves contaminated, notes Brown, from sources that include “the properties right on the harbor, the stormwater that drains for the local area into the harbor, the Blind Brook Wastewater Treatment Plant, and the polluted water in Blind Brook.”


The oysters, in other words, have some work to do to filter and clean the Sound Shore’s waters. But so do we all. Rye Middle School students will be doing their part.