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Oysters Could Save Staten Island From the Next Hurricane Sandy

A living breakwater could prevent future flooding while cleaning polluted waters

(Maximilian Stock Ltd/photocuisine/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Settled at the southernmost tip of Staten Island, the neighborhood of Tottenville has a long history with shellfish. During the 19th century, it was known as “the town the oyster built,” due to a brisk trade based on the copious amounts of bivalves that made the harbor their home.

Since then, however, increased shipping traffic and extensive pollution have wiped out most of the region's oysters. Now, in a twist of fate, Tottenville will be protected from damaging storms like Hurricane Sandy by a 13,000-foot-long oyster reef funded by a $60-million federal grant, Alec Appelbaum writes for The Atlantic.

Ever since Hurricane Sandy flooded parts of New York City in October 2012, city officials have been working with communities and architects to strengthen the city’s infrastructure and make vulnerable neighborhoods more resilient. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has plans to build a massive seawall off the city's coast, but construction won’t begin until at least 2018, Tom Wrobleski writes for SILive.com.

In the meantime, the storm’s aftermath opened up the possibility for new, creative ways to better equip these neighborhoods to handle the next superstorm.

While breakwaters are often installed near coastal cities to reduce the height and velocity of waves during big storms, “The Living Breakwaters,” as the project is called, will be the first in New York Harbor to integrate live oysters into its surface. As the oysters reproduce, the breakwaters will grow larger and provide even more protection to Tottenville and surrounding neighborhoods while acting as a filtration system to help clean the pollutants out of the harbor, Nicholas Rizzi wrote for DNAinfo. Meanwhile, the breakwaters' designers hope that it will spark a shift in the neighborhood’s relationship with the nearby waterways.

“The oystering attracts the fishery group, which is why we backed it in the first place,” John Malizia, a local fisher and member of the community advisory council, tells Appelbaum.

The trick to getting the reef up and running might be getting the oysters settled in the first place. Although oysters spawn millions of babies (called spats) at a time, only a very small portion of those survive into adulthood due to the harbor’s strong currents and the spats’ own pickiness about the materials that they anchor to.

Luckily, oysters’ favorite thing to latch on to is old oyster shells, which New York City’s many restaurants still have in abundance, Appelbaum writes. To get things going, the breakwaters' developers are working with the Billion Oyster Project, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to re-seed New York Harbor with—you guessed it—a billion oysters.

The Living Breakwaters are still being built, but if they work, the project could be replicated in other coastal regions looking for relief from storms and strong waves.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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