Shell shocker! Oysters thrive in our dirty water

Shell shocker! Oysters thrive in our dirty water
The Brooklyn Paper / Ben Muessig

Oysters are flourishing in the dirty waters off Brooklyn, but these bivalves aren’t bound for the raw bar.

In hopes of cleaning the filthy New York Harbor, scientists are trying to reintroduce the epicurean delicacy to the foul estuary where they once dwelled.

Unfortunately for shellfish lovers, the goal is environmental, not culinary.

“Oysters are like a sewage treatment plant — they filter water,” said researcher Bart Chezar, who is leading an experiment to reestablish a haven for the prized shellfish on the Bay Ridge Flats, a stretch of sandy, eight- to 12-foot-deep water off Sunset Park.

“If you can re-establish a substantive oyster reef in New York harbor, it’s not only good for the ecology — it’s also good for the water quality,” said Chezar.

Earlier this month, Chezar and divers from Bay Keeper, the Gowanus Dredgers and the New York Harbor School retrieved more than 600 oysters from the murky harbor and discovered that some of mollusks had grown as much as five milimeters in a single month — a big gain for such a puny mollusk.

And only three oysters died after 30 days in the polluted waters — a reassuringly low number for researchers.

“My biggest concern was that there was going to be a lot of mortality, and there wasn’t a lot at all,” Chezar said.

Nonetheless, things aren’t necessarily in the clear for the Bay Ridge Flat oysters — or the nascent field of oyster restoration itself.

“It’s easy to make the case that oyster restoration is a good thing — but long-term success is still unanswered at this point,” said Hudson River Foundation scientist James Lodge.

Even if oysters continue to grow in New York harbor — where they once played a critical role before over-harvesting and over-pollution — disease, parasites, and hungry starfish could still ravage the mollusks.

And before scientists can move forward with their goal of transforming one of the world’s busiest waterways into the thriving oyster bed it once was, they’ll need clearance from several state agencies.

Nonetheless, the early results are positive — though they fall far short of what diners remember about New York’s great oyster history. Hundreds of years ago, of course, when the white man first set foot in this bivalve paradise, oysters as big as dinner plates filled the waterways of Brooklyn — and raw shellfish was sold on street corners for the next two centuries, much as hot dogs are today.

Alas, we’re not there yet.

“It would be great to think that sometime in the future we would be eating them, but there are some fundamental issues with metals and other pollutants that are a long way from being resolved,” said Chezar, whose baskets are labeled with “do not eat” warnings.

“For the time being, this is about doing something that is environmentally beneficial,” he said.

Researcher Kate Mosher-Smith, of the Gowanus Dredgers, measured and examined the oysters on Saturday, determining that most of the mollusks are surprisingly healthy despite the dirty waters.
The Brooklyn Paper / Ben Muessig

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