Murray Fisher, founder of the Billion Oyster Project, will appear at Beacon Institute's Science Cafe, launching April 21st, 7pm at The Hop, 554 Main Street, Beacon
A century ago, the oyster was the Big Apple’s pearl. The nation’s most urbanized waters boasted more than 260,000 acres of oyster beds spread throughout New York Harbor, its bays and estuaries, the lower Hudson and East rivers. Oystering was as integral to the Harbor’s identity as the Statue of Liberty. New Yorkers ate more oyster meat than beef. You could buy oysters on the street corner the way you can dirty hot dogs today. The original New York “foot-longs” were Gowanus oysters, gathered from Gowanus Bay and Creek in Brooklyn and exported to Europe as a delicacy.
In present day New York, however, oysters are better associated with the Oyster Bar in the basement of New York’s Grand Central Terminal, where oysters from Apalachicola Bay in Florida and Chincoteague Bay in Maryland are now the delicacy. Generations of pollution and over-harvesting drove out New York oystering, and the name “Gowanus” is now identified with the canal, a toxic, Federal Superfund site (hopefully on its way to a major cleanup).
But the Billion Oyster Project aims to change all that by enlisting hundreds of thousands of city school children to restore a billion oysters to city waters. It is the brainchild of the New York Harbor School and its founder, Murray Fisher. Now president of the New York Harbor Foundation, which helps fund and manage the school’s programs, Fisher remains intimately involved in the program and his vision still animates its mission:
There are 1.1 million kids in the public school system of a city that was once located on one of the richest coastal habitats on the Atlantic coast. But today New York Harbor is degraded and disconnected from those 1.1 million kids. We believe it can again be one of the richest and most biologically productive coastal ecosystems and, by extension, a classroom and laboratory unlike any in the world.
Fisher’s vision does not end at tying education to oyster restoration. Just as pollution was the enemy of the New York Harbor oyster, the oyster can be the enemy of New York Harbor pollution. One oyster can filter one gallon of water each day. Fisher explains:
If we can create a standing population of one billion oysters, it would theoretically completely filter the Harbor every three days. I don’t know of a better plan to clean up the city’s waters.
Ultimately, the Billion Oyster Project is about service: to the environment, to school children, to a city that lost its environmental way, to those of a long-gone generation who knew not what they were losing, even as it slipped through their fingers. It not only empowers students to build a new future for their community, it enables them to connect their present to the city’s history, while reflecting upon, and redeeming, the unwitting misdeeds of prior generations.