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New York’s Slow Comeback to Title of the Big Oyster

  • 10 October 2014
  • networx

“It’s a big one,” Chris Anderson shouted through his diver’s mask when he surfaced.

Indeed it was: an oyster 11.1 centimeters long, or about 4.37 inches. It was the second largest he had seen in nine years of hunting for Crassostrea virginica, wild oysters, on the bottom of the Hudson River.

Some naturalists are building reefs in New York Harbor for oysters to live on. Some even import the oysters to local waters. Last year, about 100,000 farm-raised baby oysters were relocated to an artificial reef in the Bronx River, just off the shore of Soundview Park in the South Bronx.

Then there is Mr. Anderson. As the lead diver for the River Project, he goes looking for wild oysters that have found places to live on their own — places in a tiny area of the Hudson, beneath the old wooden pilings around the former Hudson River Pier 42, only a few hundred yards from the West Side Highway at Morton Street. His boss, Cathy Drew, the founder and executive director of the River Project, said: “Everyone has their little niche. This is ours.”

As the author Mark Kurlansky has observed, New York was the Big Oyster before it was the Big Apple. Little Oyster Island and Great Oyster Island were what New Yorkers once called Ellis Island and Liberty Island. And famous British authors helped make New York oysters famous. Guess what a 12-course tribute to Charles Dickens — who described Scrooge as “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster” — began with? Yes, food, glorious, food, and not the same old gruel.

But the city’s once-rich oyster beds were decimated by pollution. Now there are oyster restoration projects, and Mr. Anderson, who is both census taker and mapmaker, intends to count the oysters at the former Pier 42 as part of a pilot study. He also intends to note the oysters’ locations in a systematic way, so he can pay return visits and keep track of the pier’s oyster population almost one by one. And he puts the emphasis on “micro” as he calls the pier a microcosm of hopeful signs.

One is that there are more wild oysters in the densely grass-green water than 10 years ago. “The one hiccup” since then, he said, was Hurricane Sandy.

Mr. Anderson blamed that storm, in 2012, for a drop of 15 to 20 percent in the oyster population at the pier. Hurricane Sandy, unlike Hurricane Irene in 2011, caused heavy damage to the pilings, he said. Pieces of the pilings tumbled into the water and presumably crushed some oysters. Other oysters, buried in sediment as the storm subsided, suffocated.

“It was tough to find the same oysters again,” Mr. Anderson said. “Irene was O.K. Sandy was violent.”

PhoStill, he said, the population count is easily several thousand, and growing. “They’re living on some of the concrete, the cement, from the actual pier itself,” he said. “Years ago, when they removed the pier, a lot of the rubble from the base of the pier fell to the bottom. Luckily, that’s been good for the oysters. The oysters don’t necessarily want to settle on wood.”

James Lodge, senior scientist with the Hudson River Foundation, said the research at the former Pier 42 was different from projects that simply counted the oyster population — or worked to increase it. “What’s unique about it is they’re looking at the same oysters over time in a relatively small area,” Mr. Lodge said. “They’ll be able to document if there was natural recruitment” — if new oysters were born there — “and how those oysters grow and survive.”

Mr. Anderson spent 20 minutes under water the other day and surfaced without incident, which has not always been the case. In years of exploring the Hudson, he has been poked by rebar, the metal bars used in reinforced concrete structures like the slab that once sat atop the pilings at the former Pier 42. He said that he had seen “weird unidentifiable objects” in the river, and that he had declined the opportunity to see two bodies that turned up at Pier 40, where the River Project, a nonprofit marine science research operation, has its laboratory.

In the densest area at the former Pier 42, Ms. Drew said, the count was nine oysters per square meter. In his dive the other day, Mr. Anderson reported seeing four per square meter, including the big one he found the other day.

That creature, he speculated, was at least four years old, “but more likely around six or seven years old.” It was nine millimeters shorter than the longest oyster he has ever discovered in the Hudson. He brought it to the surface and measured it with calipers as he bobbed in the water, then returned it to its place on the river bottom.

“I knew oysters existed that are that large, and I know there are ones that are larger than that in the piling field than I have found yet, because I haven’t gotten to survey much of the piling field over all,” he said. “It was whiter than the other oysters. It almost seemed to glow. It really stuck out among the mussels and the sea squirts and the algae.”