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Can students return a billion oysters to a New York harbor?

August 19, 2017 at 4:58 PM EDT
Oysters were once abundant in New York City, but decades of over-harvesting and pollution led to their near-extinction there. Now, an education initiative called the Billion Oyster Project teaches public school students how to help bring them back to the city’s harbor, with the goal of restoring a billion oysters by 2035. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano has more.
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CLARISSA LYNN: Does everyone have a pen or pencil?

IVETTE FELICIANO: 7th grade science teacher Clarissa Lynn takes her class on a 15-minute walk from their school in Harlem to New York City’s East River. There, they pull up a cage filled with oysters from an an oyster restoration station.

CLARISSA LYNN: Put it in…

IVETTE FELICIANO: Observing the growth of oysters is part of the Billion Oyster Project, an initiative to restore a billion of the once plentiful oysters to New York’s harbor by 2035.

Clarissa Lynn’s Central Park East 2 is one of over 100 participating middle schools and high schools.

CLARISSA LYNN: The oysters are a perfect hands on vehicle to teach kids a lot of different science skills. You can go into lessons on classification, and identification, ecology roles, so how do these organisms work together to create a balanced ecosystem?

IVETTE FELICIANO: More than 10,000 students monitor and collect data at 100 oyster restoration stations.

CLARISSA LYNN: You can identify what type of crab.

They’re learning so much about the world that they particularly live in. We’re not studying a coral reef in some other part of the world. No, this is your backyard.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Students document conditions, like water quality and clarity, and write reports.

JANINE JIMENEZ, STUDENT: My question is how and why are the oysters dying. Since there’s a lot of things going on. The oysters haven’t been doing well today, like for the past few months.

EJ JIMINEZ: We started with about 100 and then next thing we know, a bunch of them died.
IVETTE FELICIANO: Twins Janine and Ej Jiminez are studying why 70 percent of the oysters have died at their station since last October.

CLARISSA LYNN: That was the inspiration for their project – why is this happening? Finding out that this is not a suitable place to put an oyster reef is important, because that’ll help us narrow down the places for the project to ultimately be successful.

IVETTE FELICIANO: New York City was once known as the oyster capital of the world, with 200,000 acres of oyster reefs.

MURRAY FISHER: There were more oysters consumed, produced, and shipped out of New York Harbor in New York City than anywhere else in the world. But by the early 1800s, we had eaten them all.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Billion Oyster Project co-founder Murray Fisher considers oysters a keystone species that can help can clean or filter the water by removing algae, phytoplankton, and other particles.

MURRAY FISHER: An adult oyster filters, conservatively, in the summertime when they’re feeding, a gallon of water an hour, so 24 gallons a day. That means the standing volume of New York Harbor would be filtered by a billion oysters once every three days.

IVETTE FELICIANO: The oyster reefs not only filter the water, they also provide habitat for other wildlife and help protect erosion of the shoreline from future storms and flooding.

Since the project began three years ago, students have planted over 24 million oysters in the harbor.

While these oysters are not destined for consumption, restaurants across the city are participating, by providing millions of recycled oyster shells to build back the reefs.

NAAMA TAMIR: We keep the top part of the oyster shelL. When they’re done with the oysters, we make sure we keep the bottom parts as well.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Naama Tamir hosts a daily oyster happy hour at her restaurant, Lighthouse, in Brooklyn.

She donates 800 shells a week. The project then implants them onto the shells and distributes them to the monitoring stations.

The project still has a long way to go before reaching a billion.

CLARISSA LYNN: My hope is that some of these students will end up in career paths into sciences, technology and engineering. They definitely have the ability, and I think a big part is helping them see that they have the confidence or they have the capability to do that.

MURRAY FISHER: This once was one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet. If we want to live sustainably and happily for another several hundred years or maybe every thousand years, we’ve got to take care of this natural resource. And if we don’t know about it, we’re not going to take care of it.

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