Rye’s Young Citizen Scientists Moon Shot: A Billion Oysters to Save the Sound
By Howard Husock
You may have thought of them merely as a delicacy to enjoy on the half-shell, but the virtues of oysters are many.
The Rye students hope to open a second oyster station on Blind Brook behind the high school, and gain support to build a full artificial reef to support a larger oyster population.
They’ve not quite raised a billion oysters on their small research station at the edge of the Milton Boat Basin dock, but the Rye City School’s branch of the New York Harbor Billion Oyster Project is definitely doing its part. Three years after being chosen as the project’s first school group outside the five boroughs of the city, Rye Middle School Life Science teacher John Griffin advises 30 members of what is now an official school club. The members have not only doubled the number of oysters in their crustacean cage, but they’ve gathered research data about the quality of the Long Island Sound as a shellfish habitat — and they’ve hatched some ambitious plans to expand their research.
The club’s work so engages its members that you can find them on the dock at Milton Harbor after school and all summer, measuring the growth of the clumps of oysters they first tagged three years ago. The growth is modest — there are only 70 oysters on the research station — but that’s hardly the only point. The project, according to Griffin, helps students understand all sorts of things about the marine environment in Rye — how oysters clean the water by filtering out nitrogen, as well as the range of sea creatures extant so close to home, including eels, crabs, and alewives.
“It’s a chance to really get involved in science and get some hands-on experience,” says rising Rye High sophomore Breanna Brounson with a straight face as she holds a muddy oyster and calls out its measurements to fellow club member Marin Martin. Later, the students will send their results to the Billion Oyster Project’s central data base, to help track the health of New York Harbor and surrounding waters — health which it hopes a resurgent oyster population will help improve.
“It’s important to be involved in science outside of the classroom,” notes fellow club member Hannah Lloyd.
“It’s amazing to discover what you don’t know about wildlife in Rye,” adds Joseph Montalto.
They’re a committed group. On a hot last full day of school, they gathered at the Boat Basin to lift the increasingly heavy research station out of the muck and dutifully chart the number and measurements of their oysters. They also examined all the other sea life that has joined them, including the prize catch of the day: a chocolate-tipped mud crab. These kids don’t mind getting their hands dirty.
They’re a small part of something much bigger. Based on Governor’s Island, the Billion Oyster Project (BOP) was established in 2008 with the goal of building enough oyster reefs with sufficiently clean water to support, literally, a billion oysters. It’s a back-to-the future idea: When Henry Hudson first sailed into the New York Harbor, there were an estimated 220,000 oyster reefs. Oysters were so plentiful that they were a key source of food and a major industry, including in Rye. Census records show that residents living near what is today the Milton Boat Basin included “watermen”, who’d gather the shellfish, sell them locally, and ship them along with the produce grown on Milton Point, to the City.
You may have thought of them merely as a delicacy to enjoy on the half-shell, but the virtues of oysters are many. Oyster reefs do more than provide homes for oysters. As the shells mount, the reefs help protect the shoreline from storm surges like that which hit Milton Point during Superstorm Sandy. According to the BOP, “Restoring oysters and reefs will, over time, restore the local marine ecosystem’s natural mechanisms for maintaining itself, resulting in cleaner water, greater biodiversity, and resiliency in the face of climate change.”
Students, like those at Rye High and Middle schools, are the frontline troops in the Project’s work. There are BOP chapters at more than 70 schools, including the New York Harbor School on Governor’s Island. For students there, marine biology and its applications form the core curriculum, which extends to learning how to manage commercial oyster nurseries such as those at the east end of Long Island and on Block Island Sound’s Fisher’s Island, where the project’s Executive Director, Peter Malinowski, grew up. (No oyster farms yet in Oyster Bay, though!)
According to BOP’s Helene Hetrick, “Students have collected an impressive amount of data which we use to determine any trends in the growth and mortality of oysters. These measurements and reports also help further our education programs — providing insights and research questions for future school projects.”
But John Griffin’s oyster lovers want to do more. They hope to open a second oyster station on Blind Brook behind the high school, and gain support to build a full artificial reef to support a larger oyster population. They’ll need support from the schools (and maybe from Ruby’s Oyster Bar or Saltaire), and permission from the City to build. Local officials might keep in mind that as close as Greenwich, Long Island Sound is clean enough to gather shellfish that are safe to eat.
As they try to expand their work, Griffin’s kids may be joined by students from Rye Country Day School, whose science teachers, Jen Doran and Kerry Linderoth, observed the club at the Boat Basin to see the oyster project in action. “They’re committed to the idea of citizen science,” said Linderoth.
For Breanna Brounson, the prospect of enlarging not just the oyster population but the scope of the club’s project is an inspiring one. “It would be great to help make even more of a difference.”