Onward, oyster!

A democratic delicacy

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


One of the historical New Yorkers featured in New York at Its Core might be on the verge of a comeback. For thousands of years, oysters were the keystone species at the foundation of New York’s estuarine ecosystem. Massive shellfish beds in the harbor’s brackish waters stabilized the vulnerable shoreline against erosion, created habitat for other species, and of course, provided an abundant food source for generations of New Yorkers. In fact, the oyster became the city’s signature delicacy, a seemingly endless resource devoured by everyone from the earliest Lenape Indians to the millions of new arrivals who poured in during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. 

But even New York’s tremendous oyster population could stand only so much human development. By 1927, after decades of intensive harvesting and increasing pollution, the city government finally declared harbor oysters unsafe to eat. Since that time, oysters have remained virtually extinct in most of the rivers, bays, and marshes surrounding the city. 

That is, until now. Over the past few years, environmental organizations like the 'Billion Oyster Project' (BOP) have begun experimenting with strategies to restore the oyster population in New York harbor. This summer the BOP partnered with student researchers from Wagner College to test whether oysters might survive in Lemon Creek, a wetland system emptying into Prince’s Bay along the southeastern coast of Staten Island. Though local oysters are still not safe to eat, the research team hopes that the mollusks will provide crucial environmental services, filtering water and buffering the shorelines from wave energy and storm surges. Oysters performed these functions for thousands of years before human development drove them out. Now, especially as we grow increasingly concerned about the threats of rising waters and more severe weather, BOP and Wagner College hope to put oysters back to work. Perhaps, in this case, New York’s environmental past can inform our environmental future. Maybe one way to move forward is to look back, by restoring our ecosystem’s natural ability to protect itself. 

The oyster is one of over 70 characters – four of which are from the animal kingdom – brought to life by state-of-the-art interactive technology in New York at Its Core, including Alexander Hamilton, Walt Whitman, Emma Goldman, JP Morgan, Fiorello La Guardia, Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs, Sonia Sotomayor, Donna Karan, Jay-Z, Gloria Steinem, and dozens more. These “people interactives” allow Museum visitors to virtually meet and delve into the stories of the historical icons who helped New York become New York.

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