Early in the 19th Century, oysters were plentiful in the cool waters of Jamaica Bay. But 200 years of over-harvesting, pollution and a hurricane have decimated the bay’s native oyster population.
With oysters on their minds, a collaborative, including Congressmember Anthony Weiner; the U.S. National Park Service; the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook; the State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers, have teamed up to bring the bivalve mollusk back.
On Monday, August 10, the group launched a feasibility study to determine whether or not the 21st Century Jamaica Bay is oyster-appropriate. The three-year study will demonstrate how well oysters grow when placed in the bay’s waters; how small “mini-reefs” respond to the presence of oysters; if swimming oyster larvae will settle in the waters from sources outside the bay; and examine the bay’s currents to determine where to create reefs.
Professor Jeffrey Levinton, a marine biologist at SUNY Stony Brook and the lead investigator of the study, said in an email that “lots of searching has failed to yield any populations” of bay oysters. Yet, during the Jamaica Bay oyster’s peak, “one can be sure that there were many millions if not billions,” Levinton noted.
Levinton explained that the re-introduction of the oyster into Jamaica Bay is important because the invertebrate is a vital part of marine ecosystems with many species of bottom creatures and fish dependent on its existence. In the summer months, the professor noted, an oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. While filtering, oysters consume algae, increase oxygen levels and reduce nitrogen levels in the water.
If the study concludes that conditions in the bay are conducive to the oyster, a full-scale restoration project would commence. But, Levinton admitted, “It would take a number of years” for the oyster to flourish, adding, there are “too many problems from wastewater” to consider restoring the oyster as a food source in the short term. The goal of the initiative, he said, is restoring the bay’s “ecological health.”
“Bringing oysters back to the bay is one of the best things we can do for the estuary ecosystem,” the Congressmember said in a statement. “After over a century of absence, it’s time for oysters to return to Jamaica Bay.”