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One billion oysters, and one million New Yorkers  

Special Interest Programme / Partner story

Photo credit : Billion Oyster Project 

Once upon a time, New York Harbour was home to 220,000 acres of oyster reefs. They helped clean the water, provided habitat for millions of fish, birds, and aquatic animals, and protected the shoreline from soil erosion and storm surges. Sadly, this natural population of oysters was decimated throughout the centuries because of overharvesting and pollution. 

Billion Oyster Project believes that by re-introducing oysters through artificial reef construction, the natural biodiversity that once thrived in the harbour can be restored. The organisation’s goal is to put one billion oysters back in the harbour by 2035, and to engage one million New Yorkers in this endeavour by 2035. It is well on the way towards this goal. At the end of 2022, it had restored over 100 million oysters and 17 acres of reef since it was founded in 2014. 

“We are making progress toward restoring a lost habitat, and motivating a generation of New Yorkers to care about the ecosystem around them,” says Pete Malinowski, executive director and co-founder of Billion Oyster Project. 

Central to the project is community engagement, which it achieves through: engaging in community-focused environmental actions such as volunteer programmes; developing educational curriculum and services for teachers and students in New York City public schools; and, restoring the oyster reef habitat through hands-on collaboration with New Yorkers. 

“We believe in a future in which New York Harbour is the centre of a rich, diverse, and abundant estuary,” says Pete. “The communities that surround this complex ecosystem have helped construct it, and in return, benefit from it, with endless opportunities for work, education, and recreation.” 

The reef structures are created from discarded oyster shells that come from New York restaurants, thus diverting them from landfills. The clean shells are bound into artificial reef structures and seeded with baby oysters before being placed in the harbour. So far, over two million pounds of oyster, clam, and scallop shells have been collected from local restaurants. Billion Oyster Project currently has the capacity to produce up to 50 million oysters per year. It has plans to double its oyster production capacity in the next couple of years. 

Sadly, for now, the oysters cannot be eaten, as the harbour is still much too polluted. However, re-installing the oyster populations will help clean the water by removing pollutants, and will help support a healthy marine ecosystem. “An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day,” says Pete. “Oysters filter water as they eat.” 

The re-established oyster reefs will also help create a natural defence against storm damage by softening the blow of large waves, reducing flooding, and preventing erosion. “All in all, it’s a win-win situation,” says Lisa Carl, programme officer for Oak’s Special Interest Programme. “We are excited about the long-term impact of this work and are looking forward to what lies ahead.” 

This grant falls under Oak Foundation’s Special Interest Programme, which covers a wide range of fields, including environment, health, humanitarian relief, education, and the arts. You can find out more about the programme and its strategy here. To find out more about Billion Oyster Project, check out its website here.