Environment / Health / News / Parks

Oysters promote health of Bronx River

Photo by Angela LaSalle

Army Corps of Engineers and students plant oysters in Bronx River

Project aims to restore them by the thousands to local waters

Elizabeth Severino stepped into the Bronx River, waded to Rocking the Boat’s small motor boat, reached into a bucket and held up two young oysters.

She views the oysters as a sign of the river’s rebirth.

“The reason the population of oysters died was pollution and over-harvest. These oysters have been through a lot,” she said.

Now, though, she said, they signal that the river can sustain life in its water and on its banks.

Pointing to a flock of birds near the shore, Severino continued, “One great way of knowing if the oysters or any aquatic animal is doing its job is what I call a ‘beautiful day.’ That’s when you see lots of other animals making this their habitat. We just saw a great blue heron earlier and this signifies that the water quality is good and that the area is becoming clean and healthy.”

Severino, an on-water program assistant at Rocking the Boat, was taking part in the last phase of an ambitious experiment–an effort to restore the oyster reefs that once housed thousands of oysters in the Bronx River.

On Oct. 28, she and others from Rocking the Boat joined scientists from the Army Corps of Engineers, graduate students from the City University of New York, members of the Parks Department Natural Resources Group and students from the Harbor School to create a new oyster bed in the river.

If the oyster reefs can become self-sustaining, they will improve water quality, encourage fish to reproduce and act as a habitat for other species, which would in turn encourage more birds to flock to the river and more animals to feed and breed on its shore.

Before boarding the boat, Jim Lodge of the Hudson River Foundation showed off an oyster with five babies growing on its back. It was the product of an aquaculture technique called “spat-on-shell”—a new method pioneered in Chesapeake Bay that encourages larva to settle on shells in aquariums where they turn in to juvenile oysters, mimicking the way oysters reproduce in the wild.

The Bronx River oysters were cultivated in the laboratory classroom of the Harbor School on Governor’s Island, and sowing them will be the first test of the spat-on-shell method in New York City. Engineers hope the technique will encourage growth and stability in the reefs.

Holding white buckets filled with oysters, members of Rocking the Boat, the Harbor School and the Army Corps of Engineers began planting the oysters. Each was responsible for three bucketsful.

Each worker stood waist deep in the water wearing shiny wet suits and, in what seemed to be an intricately choreographed performance, each reached into a bucket, took out one oyster and bent into the water, placing the oyster carefully onto the base of rock and shell material that makes up the bed.

By the end of the day they would put 50,000 oysters in place on a 50×30 foot reef.

Wading towards her second bucket, Severino slipped and fell backwards into the water. She emerged drenched and dripping, but still enthusiastic about planting her remaining buckets.

She foresees that this will be the beginning of many “beautiful days” to come. At the end of the year, the team hopes to have hundreds of acres of oysters growing along the bottom of the Bronx River near Soundview Park.

A version of this story appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Hunts Point Express.

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