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Red Hook Oysters are Ready for Love

By Heather Flanagan
February 6, 2017

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, BOP oysters are ready to spawn.

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Where do baby oysters come from?  Well, when one oyster loves- actually, as you might imagine, romantic love has little to do with it (and there’s not much possibility for intimacy among adult oysters, who are sessile [immobile] for their entire adult lives!).  Instead, oyster reproduction is cued by changes in their environment.  These cues include water temperature, salinity, and the availability of food (specifically phytoplankton, which is a type of algae).

Oysters reproduce by releasing either sperm or eggs into the water (called “spawning”).  When an egg and sperm meet in the water, the egg becomes a fertilized egg.

oyster life cycle

Oyster reproduction diagram via Chesapeake Quarterly.

These fertilized eggs drift in the water column and grow until they become oyster larvae, which can move on their own.  The oyster larvae continue to grow and change, and in their last stage of development, they find a hard surface to attach to (called a “substrate”) and essentially glue themselves to it.  After that, oysters never move again!

At Billion Oyster Project, we help nature along by moving this process to our aquaculture lab.  By controlling factors like temperature, salinity, and the availability of food and substrate, and by keeping out predators, we can give young oysters a much better chance of survival!  In the lab, we provide oyster larvae with ideal conditions, lots of food, and cleaned and cured oyster shells (their favorite kind of substrate) from NYC restaurants through BOP’s Shell Collection Program.  The young oysters can then attach to the shells and continue to grow until they’re strong enough to get put into the harbor as “spat-on-shell” (tiny oysters attached to a substrate shell).

But to do that, we need tough New York Harbor oysters.  And that’s where BOP’s Oyster Restoration Stations (ORS), which are monitored and maintained by NYC public school students and citizen scientists, come in handy!  An ORS is a cage-like structure containing live spat-on-shell oysters- we’ve got dozens of them hanging off of docks and piers all over NYC.

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BOP Hatchery Manager Jeremy Esposito with a Red Hook ORS filled with adult oysters!

This January, New York Harbor School Aquaculture seniors braved the cold to look for potential oyster parents (called “broodstock”) from some of our oldest Oyster Restoration Stations in Erie Basin Park in Red Hook, Brooklyn, coming by boat from Governors Island.

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An ORS is a relatively protected place for young oysters to grow, but with disease and predators lurking at every turn, you never know how many live oysters you’ll find until you pull it out of the water and check.

Guided by BOP Hatchery Manager Jeremy Esposito, Aquaculture teacher Roy Arezzo, Restoration Manager Katie Mosher-Smith, and BOP’s scientist-in-residence from The Nature Conservancy, Mike McCann, students looked for large adult oysters:

They even found this exciting stowaway- a skeleton shrimp!

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The trip proved to be a success- the group was able to gather about 20 adult oysters to use as broodstock:

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Now, these oysters are conditioning in the Aquaculture lab at springtime temperatures (around 20°C to 30°C [74°F to 86°F]), eating phytoplankton, and getting ready to spawn!  Since a female oyster can produce 2-150 million eggs, Jeremy said we might expect 10 million fertilized eggs, and from there, 2 million spat-on-shell- Katie’s goal for this batch.  These oysters will be used in future restoration projects in NY Harbor, like our BOP Community Reefs, and any extra oysters will get tagged and sent to Oyster Restoration Stations.

Interested in helping us grow and monitor oysters in an ORS in your area?  We’re always looking for more schools and citizen scientists to get involved- click here to learn more about how you can participate!