Making marine life

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West Side students help rejuvenate Hudson River


  • Alberto of the Billion Oyster Project sorting through a collection of oyster shells that will be deposited in the Hudson River as part of rejuvenation effort of the New York Harbor. Photo: Benjamin Von Wong

  • A student measures an oyster shell and looks for attached larvae. Photo: Layla Shaffer

  • West End Secondary School’s Green Team poses with their oyster research equipment and an exhibition chart. Photo: Ashad Hajela

  • An oyster cage ready for inspection. Photo: Layla Shaffer

Three times a year, members of the Green Team at West End Secondary School go down to the West 79th Street Boat Basin and give the Hudson River a checkup. They do this by scrutinizing oysters.

The students, seventh and eighth graders at the West 61st Street school, evaluate the river’s health by seeing how many of the marine mollusks are dead or alive, taking account of the larvae growing on shells, and measuring salinity.

Shells, the students are learning, are useful organisms for both assessing and enabling the river’s well-being: They filter seawater, provide a habitat for other species and cleanse water of pollutants.

“We learned how dire the state of the Hudson is and how useful oysters can be,” said Jacqueline Lovci, an eighth-grader.

The West End students have been monitoring oysters for a couple of years as part of a Green Team elective. WESS is one of several schools citywide partnering with the Billion Oyster Project (BOP), which recycles oyster shells by putting them in the river to rejuvenate a once-thriving river and New York harbor befouled and contaminated by industrial and organic runoff for a good portion of the 20th century.

According to the BOP, oyster reefs once blanketed more than 220,000 acres of New York Bay. To reestablish what it calls “a sustainable oyster population,” BOP, an initiative of the New York Harbor Foundation, is working with community organizations, restaurants and schools throughout New York City to take stock and improve the river.

“We set schools up with research stations,” said BOP’s strategic director Jennifer Ballesteros. “We give teachers a curriculum to support the research the students are doing.”

Ballesteros said the project’s partner restaurants collect and divide the shells, which are collected by Lobster Place, a seafood supplier, and Earth Matter, a city-based nonprofit promoting composting in the city. The shells are taken to curing sites on Governor’s Island and Staten Island where they are laid to cure for up to a year. The shells are then seeded with oyster larvae (“spat” on) and released into the harbor.

The WESS students have other environmental projects in the works, including converting WESS into a zero-waste school.

But oysters are their world, and the Green Team students have been lobbying state legislators to pass a bill that would give restaurants a tax break of 10 cents for each pound of recycled oyster shells, up to $1,000.

The students travelled to Albany last year to try and secure support for the legislation. “They listen to us and don’t just discard it,” WESS student Layla Shafer said.

The bill’s author, Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, did not respond to requests for comment, but the legislation was referred to the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee in January, as it was last year following its initial introduction.

Despite the students’ strides in Albany, another city beside the Hudson, it’s in New York City where they’re having the most impact.

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