The World Is His Oyster

November 9th, 2011 by Charles Siebert

Replenishing the once-fertile oyster population in New York’s harbors.

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One rainy afternoon this past October, longtime Brooklynite Bart Chezar stood on the roof of his Park Slope brownstone, clutching the border railing like the captain of a ship. He pointed toward the bustling New York Harbor in the distance.

“There’s an area out there called the Bay Ridge Flats,” Chezar said. “That’s where I started planting oysters.”

Long before New York became synonymous with cemented sidewalks and steel skyscrapers, the city was renowned the world over for another kind of glistening outer shell. Rich beds of oysters, some as big as café table tops, once garlanded its waters; Ellis and Liberty islands were known to the Dutch as Little and Great Oyster islands, respectively. At one time, New York was home to over half the world’s supply of oysters; through the nineteenth century they were so abundant that they were shucked and served on shoreline barges and in citywide “cellars” at rock bottom prices. By the 1950s, however, the combination of voracious harvesting, shoreline dredging and the ongoing pollution of the region’s waters had so devastated the oyster population that the relative few that remained were condemned by the Board of Health, and the prospects for the oyster’s future in New York’s waters deemed bleak at best.

The oyster’s legacy would be lost to modern New Yorkers had Chezar not gone out of his way to literally replant the seeds of the past in the city’s waters. A retired engineer for the New York Power Authority, Chezar earned his original degree in marine sciences. One day six years ago, while out kayaking around the Gowanus Bay in Red Hook, he was struck by inspiration.

“I knew the water quality around New York was getting much better,” Chezar recalls. “But when I noticed a couple of live wild oysters in the bay I thought, well, if they can make it, why can’t more?”

Chezar dug around in history books to learn about the oyster’s rich past in the city. As it turned out, much of the local culture surrounding the oyster traced back to Brooklyn, near where he’d been kayaking. At the public library, he looked at bathometric charts to get a better fix on where exactly Brooklyn’s share of oyster reefs might have been. He focused on a section of the Gowanus Bay, on the edges of New York Harbor, called the Bay Ridge Flats, an area of roughly 500 acres where the water is no more than 12 to 14 feet deep as opposed to the harbor’s average depth of 40 to 60 feet.

“I kept finding older and older bathometric maps in my research, one dating all the way back to 1776, that showed the shape of the bottom of these flats to be the same. I thought, this had to be the most likely site for the oysters.”

Chezar’s next challenge was how to re-establish a natural oyster reef where none had existed for well over a hundred years. Several groups had found ways to take oysters that had been spawned elsewhere, like the Chesapeake Bay, and culture an edible harvest on removable racks along the shores of cleaner area waters off Long Island and Massachusetts. Chezar was planning something far more enterprising and, hopefully, enduring: restoring the oyster’s natural habitat so that they could once again take root and grow. “My project wasn’t along the shore like everyone else was doing. It was out on the harbor. So we needed to get a boat out there and we needed divers.”

Chezar soon learned he’d also need a series of special permits from the city, something that would prove far more difficult to accomplish. There was, he was told, no way he’d be allowed to put any living thing on the bottom of the bay that he didn’t have the ability to remove, for fear of what harmful effect the permanent introduction of a now alien life-form might have on the present state of the harbor’s ecosystem.

Chezar’s bold scheme would have to be implemented in painstaking increments. His first year’s permit allowed him to lower to the harbor floor small cages of old oyster shells with tiny oyster larvae attached to them. This pioneer band fared so well that the city issued Chezar a new permit that next allowed him to secure his larval-backed oyster shells to an open wire mesh that rested on the bay’s floor. This was at least “a more realistic situation,” as Chezar describes it, because the oysters were now down there exposed to their natural environment with other organisms, predators and diseases. And again they prospered.

“Each of those pieces of mesh.” Chezar recalls, “would weigh eight or nine pounds when we lowered them and over 60 pounds by the time we pulled them up. It was like you were looking at an oyster reef, a thick nexus of oysters in three dimensions. This was a major breakthrough because oysters are what are known as a keystone species. An oyster reef becomes a source of food for some organisms and a place with all these interstices where other organisms can settle and breed. It’s a whole little vital ecosystem, and we showed the health of the larger environment by proving they can thrive here again. Oysters are also like little mini waste-treatment plants; they filter lots of water through them and clean away impurities.”

Chezar’s restoration efforts have proved so promising that last year, to his delight, the Hudson River Foundation, in conjunction with the NY/NJ Baykeeper’s Association and the Army Corps of Engineers, decided to take over the project and build upon his efforts. Six new makeshift reefs, roughly 15x30 feet in size and each stocked with 50,000 juvenile oysters, have already been placed at various locations in New York area waters – at Bay Ridge Flats, of course, as well as Soundview Park, Governor’s Island, Staten Island, Jamaica Bay and one slightly upriver at Hastings-on-Hudson. So far, all are thriving.

Chezar acknowledges that it will be a long time before New Yorkers are eating homegrown oysters again, and that conditions can never be what they once were. But it’s satisfaction enough just knowing that oysters are out there again, gradually gaining a toehold on the habitat they once defined. Chezar has moved on to planting the seeds for the restoration of other native species in New York. This past year he oversaw the planting of 12 American chestnut trees, a once bountiful native hardwood that was pushed to the brink of extinction in the past century by a devastating blight. He’s also directing the New York Harbor Osprey Initiative, which has set up two osprey nests – one off a derelict pier in Brooklyn, the other off Governor’s Island – in hopes of luring that regal raptor back to the skies above New York Harbor. In Chezar’s expansive view, the return of the osprey can only bode well for the oyster and its surrounding habitat.

“Think of it,” he says. “You’re walking by the harbor and you see an osprey with its 6-foot wingspan swoop down and grab a big fish right out of the harbor. And at that moment when it breaks the surface of the water, your mind does as well. We’re reviving our waterfront here in New York now and this is a good thing. But there’s also a tremendous story unfolding under the water as well, like with the oysters, so we have to get people’s minds to crack the surface and go deeper. That’s a big part of the restoration process, making people aware of our natural heritage and keeping it alive for future generations. In the end I think we humans are on an equal footing with all other animals, and it’s our responsibility to be good stewards to them.”

Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently of “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”