Cleaning up with Oysters? The Story NYC’s Unlikely Saviour
Nov 24 2014
In nineteenth century New York City, oysters from the local waters were part of the poor man’s staple diet. Oysters were more than a source of cheap food though – oyster reefs provide free flood protection. Unfortunately, the activities associated with a growing population destroyed the oyster reefs - over harvesting, habitat destruction and polluted water contributed to the oysters decline. Worst still, by 1910 some 600 million gallons of raw sewage were being pumped into New York’s waterways. As a result, people began to fall ill with cholera and typhoid — a result of eating oysters from the polluted local waters.
As the oysters died, so did the local ecosystem. But there are hopes that this can all change — and the oyster has a big role to play.
The idea behind the return of oysters back to the New York waterways is not to feed a large NYC population — but a form of ecological engineering. Before the decline of the oysters, the oyster reefs around New York provided a natural seawall that acted as the city’s first line of defence against fierce Atlantic storms. Anthropogenic climate change will lead to an increased sea level over the next century, with some scientists predicting a rise of up to two feet in the next 50 years — New York is one of the cities most at risk, as discussed in this article: climate change could increase the cost of flooding. Various solutions have been considered, including building a massive seawall. But a unique solution, costing 50 times less than some modern engineering designs, is to rebuild the oyster reefs.
Return of the Oyster
In the last decade, interest in using ecology and ecosystems to provide coastal protection has increased. There are two main drivers behind ecological engineering. The first is that ecological measures are sustainable and cost-effective in mitigating against sea level rises due to climate change. Secondly they might enhance the local ecosystem and how it functions. And this is the case with the oyster.
Generating oyster reefs will provide much needed coastal defences for New York. With reduced pollution in the local waters due to local regulations, the oysters will have a chance to establish themselves again. They can then begin to clean up the local waters by filtering the sediment and toxins out of the water. This will act as a positive feedback system in that the ecosystem can help itself to recover as the water quality improves. It will be 2050 before the oysters are safe to eat — but this is another example of turning to nature to mend the damage caused by man.
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