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billion oyster project climate change New York City
As the climate crisis rages, the Billion Oyster Project in New York City has tasked bivalves with the role of flood control heroes (photo courtesy of Billion Oyster Project).

Climate Change

Calling All Oysters: Billions Of Bivalves Enlisted In Climate Fight

Several US states are deploying oysters to build natural reefs for flood control, and the trend could help move the energy policy needle on climate action.

The oyster restoration trend has been picking up steam of late, partly because they can build formidable reefs that outperform  human-made flood control infrastructure. Of course, tasking oysters to save the planet from catastrophic climate change may be expecting too much from a mere bivalve, but the restoration projects could help move the needle on decarbonization policy in key US states.

Oysters To The Rescue, New York City Edition

Probably the best known oyster restoration project in the US is the Billion Oyster Project. The effort aims at replacing lost habitat, reducing storm damage and flooding, and stalling the pace of shoreline erosion in the waterways around New York City.

BOP was dreamed up in 2014 by Murray Fisher and Pete Malinowski of the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School in Brooklyn. The idea quickly gathered steam with an initial assist from thousands of crushed toilets.

The preferred growth medium for new oyster reefs is old oyster shells, and BOP soon incorporated a shell collection program. To date, the project has diverted 1.5 million pounds of shells from landfills for use in reef restoration, through partnerships with about 75 New York City restaurants.

BOP currently counts 15 new oyster reef sites to its credit, hosting hundreds of aquatic species along with the oysters. Over the next five years the plan is to scale up and introduce 25 million oysters per season by 2024, towards a target of 100 million oysters in all.

In a blog post last November, Malinowski noted that the project is part of a broader urban habitat restoration effort that has enticed seahorses, dolphins, seals, northern gannets, great blue herons, bald eagles and other wildlife into New York City.

Flood-Fighting Oysters For Louisiana

In support of the oysters, New York State has embarked on an ambitious decarbonization program that includes a generous helping of offshore wind farms along with solar power and energy storage.

Louisiana has also become a hotbed for oyster reef restoration, though its record on climate action has yet to be resolved.

The Pelican State state has a long history in oyster conservation going back to the early 1900s, with the primary purpose of improving its fisheries. More recently, the state’s introduction of new oyster reefs for flood control was the subject of a long form BBC article in 2018, which noted many benefits:

“The nooks and crannies of oyster shells provide extra surface area, absorbing wave energy and buffering the coastline more than a flat structure. They also offer protection to smaller sea creatures. And the shells allow water, bacteria and algae to flow through them – crucial for the marshes, which use the tidal flow to ‘breathe’.”

The Nature Conservancy has spearheaded a number of oyster reef installations in Louisiana, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries seems to be catching on. Last October, LDWF brought up the flood control angle when it announced a new 200-acre oyster reef for a fishery in Caillou Lake (Sister Lake).

The project was funded by the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment as part of a $26 million allocation for oyster projects.

“Healthy, interconnected oyster populations form reefs that provide the hard substrate needed for oyster larvae to settle, grow, and sustain the population,” LDWF explains, adding that “Furthermore, oyster reefs provide structural integrity, improve water quality, and potentially reduce coastal erosion.”

Oysters Are Part Of The Climate Plan

EDF (formerly Environmental Defense Fund) has also taken note of Louisiana’s leadership in the oyster reef restoration field.

In a blog post last July, EDF Senior Scientist Devyani Kar described Louisiana as a “center of climate adaptation and resilience practices, and more recently, climate mitigation efforts.”

Kar cited the Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan, taking note of its deployment of new oyster reefs to “slow erosion and reduce land loss.”

She also noted that Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards has been working to resolve a paradox in the state’s economy. Louisiana is an epicenter of the US oil and gas industry, which is somewhat at odds with its efforts to salvage its remaining coastal waters and preserve its fisheries.

“In 2020, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards committed to reducing the state’s net Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions to zero by 2050, with stepwise reductions along the way. He established the Climate Initiative Task Force to provide recommendations in early 2022 for achieving these goals,” Kar wrote.

Louisiana is actually in a pretty good position to pivot into new, decarbonized energy industries. A recent analysis of offshore wind resources in the Gulf of Mexico has breathed life into the state’s moribund wind industry, and fertilizer producers in the state could be poised to join the green ammonia gold rush.

Mississippi Hearts Oysters

Another oyster-loving state of note is the neighboring state of Mississippi.

Last December, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources issued a detailed update on its Remote Oyster Setting Facility Project, the purpose of which is to “support the restoration and protection of natural resources, ecosystems, fisheries, marine and wildlife habitats, beaches and coastal wetlands of the Mississippi Gulf Coast region through the planning, construction and operations activities associated with an oyster setting facility.”

The project is still in the planning stages, but if all goes according to plan the Port of Gulfport will be the location. MDMR set up a small scale oyster restoration operation at the Port last summer to assess the feasibility of remote setting, which refers to breeding oyster babies (aka “spat”) in a hatchery and giving them a chance to latch onto old oyster shells before transporting them to a permanent reef.

Actually, “small scale” does not quite describe the goings-on. MDMR deployed 98 million larvae into six 1,000-gallon tanks loaded with natural seawater from Gulfport Harbor and old oyster shells to grow spat-on-shell. The tanks produced almost 12 million spats in five months, which is apparently a fairly decent rate of setting. The end result was 46.8 cubic yards of spat-on-shell, which MDMR placed on existing reefs in Biloxi Bay.

MDMR is still in the process of reviewing the results. Meanwhile, energy policy makers in the state might want to take some cues from Louisiana if they really want to do something about coastal erosion.

Like Louisiana, Mississippi currently ranks low on the wind and solar power scale, and its wood pellet industry hasn’t helped matters much.

However, some decarbonization activity is beginning to stir in the Magnolia State. The utility Entergy announced a big renewable energy program last November, and the state’s naturally occurring salt caverns could set the stage for a green hydrogen hub.

Success in the oyster restoration field could help stir some additional interest in the energy transition, so stay tuned for more on that.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Oyster restoration in New York City courtesy of Billion Oyster Project.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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