Photo by the Billion Oyster Project

In honor of Earth Day, let’s talk about oysters. Yes, oysters! Most of us are familiar with the saltwater molluscs as a tasty treat, whether baked, broiled, fried, sauteed or just plain raw. But oysters serve a key role in repairing New York City’s marine ecosystem as well.

 

Oysters are excellent denitrifiers– which means they filter nitrogen pollution from the water as they eat. Excess nitrogen triggers algal blooms which deplete the water of oxygen, creating what scientists call “dead zones” because organisms need oxygen to survive. Oyster reefs also support biodiversity because they offer habitat, food, and shelter to other marine species and they help protect New York City from storm damage by absorbing the force of waves and preventing erosion.

The New York Harbor has a lot to gain from these remarkable ecosystem engineers and an organization on Governors Island called Billion Oyster Project (BOP) is engaging New York City’s students to get the job done. BOP envisions a future in which the harbor is the center of a rich, diverse, and abundant estuary that will benefit the surrounding communities through endless opportunities for work, education, and recreation. They restore oyster reefs to the harbor through education initiatives with New York City public schools thanks to a successful partnership with the NYC Department of Education (DOE). So far BOP has engaged 70 New York City schools to plant over 28 million oysters!

One school, however, stands out in BOP’s harbor restoration efforts: The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School on Governors Island. Students from the Harbor School take on leadership roles in all aspects of the oyster reef restoration process, including growing oysters, designing and building oyster reef structures, diving to monitor reefs, operating boats, and performing marine biology research. How? The Harbor School is a DOE Career and Technical Education (CTE) school that prepares students for college and maritime careers. CTE schools offer students the opportunity to gain real-world experience through work-based learning in a variety of industries; New York City has over 130 schools that offer over 260 CTE programs. At the Harbor School, students can choose from seven CTE programs.

While students from all programs help BOP to restore oyster reefs in the harbor, students in welding play a crucial role. A key tool in growing oysters is the gabion – a welded steel frame weighing approximately 175 pounds that houses thousands of oyster shells onto which oyster larvae attach and begin building massive oyster reefs. Harbor School students who extend their day to weld in the afterschool program have been instrumental in building these structures.

Recognizing the value of welding to this process and building on its partnership with the Harbor School, BOP engaged Public Works Partners to design a program to connect youth to welding-related jobs. The resulting plan proposed a multi-organizational collaborative that offers a combination of education and training opportunities, paid work experience, and ongoing wraparound and professional development support services.

 

Summer Payton is an Analyst with Public Works Partners. She works on program design and community engagement projects.