The waterways surrounding New York City are the cleanest they’ve been in over a hundred years. Did you know that much of the Harbor is safe for primary human contact (read: swimming) most of the time? If it was a beach, the Harbor would be open for more than half the year.
Alongside this improvement in water quality has been a resurgence of wildlife. One of the great privileges of my work at Billion Oyster Project is spending a lot of time on the water witnessing and facilitating this change. I’ve watched pods of dolphins play in Jamaica Bay. All winter long, enormous flocks of northern gannets — seagoing dive bombers with a six-foot wingspan — hunt small fish right off Coney Island. Last summer we noticed a dozen great blue heron nests where the Harlem River meets the Hudson. There’s even a family of bald eagles feeding off of Governors Island. And of course seals, just south of the Verrazzano Bridge.
Every spring students find more and more seahorses in their BOP oyster research stations. My guess is that you don’t think of these animals when you look out over the East River. My guess is that when you seek nature, you leave the five boroughs and head to the coast or to the Hudson Valley. But shouldn’t we all have the opportunity to enjoy nature where we live? Shouldn’t everyone in New York City know about our seahorses? How do we put New York Harbor back on the map as the ecological treasure it once was…
The staff, teachers and students at Billion Oyster Project and the Harbor School work on this issue every day. Every day, out on the Harbor, we experience our waterway’s ecosystem and do our small part to make it even better. In just a few months, we restored 28 million oysters, bringing our total to over 75 million. Through our Education and Community Engagement work, 8,000 students and teachers have engaged with the Harbor. Our Shell Collection Program has actively diverted almost two million pounds of shells that would have ended up in landfills.
We witness the impact of this work every day. We see the dramatic increases in local biodiversity at our reef sites. We see the impact that a first-sighting of a crab or a seahorse can have on a young person who’s grown up thinking of the Harbor as a dead zone. We are making a difference: engaging New Yorkers in new and innovative ways, restoring the ecology of the Harbor, supporting a resurgence of wildlife, and sparking interest and enthusiasm for the natural world here — at home.
This National Oyster Day, I hope our Harbor crosses your mind once again. That you don’t leave the city to find nature and wild animals, but seek them out here at home. I hope that our Species ID Guide serves as inspiration for you and your family to consider the Harbor differently and to visit. I hope that you will continue to be part of our team as we work together to rebuild natural systems and redefine the relationship between the City and the nature around it.
With sincere thanks,
Executive Director, Billion Oyster Project
This blog originally appeared on billionoysterproject.org/blog in November 2021.