Students Press the Case for Oysters as New York’s Surge Protector

Nov 13, 2012 by

resilience November 12, 2012, 8:30 am

By ANDREW C. REVKIN

At the Harbor School, a public school on Governor's Island, students are working to build oyster reefs that could blunt the next storm surge in New York Harbor. Here Mahmoud Tamer, Beni Nedrick and Ashia Salgado (left to right) hold some of the oyster shells that serve as a foundation for such reefs.The Harbor School At the Harbor School, a public school on Governor’s Island, students are working to build oyster reefs that could blunt the next storm surge in New York Harbor. Here Mahmoud Tamer, Beni Nedrick and Ashia Salgado (left to right) hold some of the oyster shells that serve as a foundation for such reefs.

I was fortunate one year ago to take the ferry from downtown Manhattan to Governor’s Island and spend a few hours at the New York Harbor School, one of the most innovative and effective experiments in public education that I’ve ever seen.

Students from around the city, most from families below the poverty line, absorb knowledge and thinking skills while studying science, history, boat building and other subjects in a curriculum (and campus) focused on this fabled body of water. They also grow oysters — lots of oysters — in an effort to restore living reefs that act as pollution filters and storm barriers.

In the aftermath of the destructive storm surge driven by Hurricane Sandy, there’s been a second surge — of recommendations on how to cut risks from the next storm. They’ve come from a Nobel Laureate in economics, an oceanographer, a geographer from the Netherlands (a country with centuries of experience holding back the sea).

But I hadn’t seen something from the generation that will be in harm’s way later in this century. So I reached out to the Harbor School to get students’ perspectives on their favorite strategy for cutting chances of another flood-driven calamity — building oyster reefs.

Here’s the resulting “Your Dot” contribution, from  Mahmoud Tamer, Beni Nedrick and Ashia Salgado (pictured left to right above):

Two weeks ago our city was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Mass flooding, power outages, oil spills and residential damages were caused by strong winds and storm surge. The current hard shorelines of New York City failed us because they are too binary — meaning that the sea walls only protect us until the water level reaches a certain height where it will then overflow into the city.

This tragedy has made us aware of how to better prepare our city for storms like this. We know that hurricanes are fueled by warm water, so as global temperatures rise New York becomes more susceptible to major storms.

New York City could build high walls all around to keep out the water, turning us into prisoners in our own city and preventing use of our greatest natural resource. Instead of confining New Yorkers we can find suitable solutions through creating a soft shoreline with native organisms that were heavily populated in this area.

As aquaculturists at the New York harbor school we grow oysters for environmental restoration. Oysters are a keystone species which means they have a disproportionate positive effect on their ecosystem. Oyster reefs provide habitat for small marine life and filter water of nitrogen and phosphorous by consuming algae that contain these nutrients.

Oyster reefs act as wave attenuators and benthic stabilizers. We grow our oysters in our hatchery and then move them when they are big enough to our nurseries under our Ecodock on Governors Island and in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Once the oysters are big enough we put them on reefs in the harbor to test if they can sustain life and biodiversity. For thousands of years oysters protected coastal regions from strong waves and storms.  If we bring oysters back to New York Harbor we restore the life that was once here and make our city more resilient to rising water levels and warming oceans.

Here’s a video report on the oyster project:

 

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