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Billion Oyster Project Launches New Community Reef Program

By Susannah Black
July 22, 2016

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Brooklyn, New York – July 20, 2016 – Billion Oyster Project is coming to a waterfront near you. The ambitious attempt to restore one billion oysters to New York Harbor is kicking off a new Community Reefs program, all of which will bring BOP closer to the fulfilment of its long-range plan to restore the Harbor keystone species and the ecosystem it fostered, and in the process, to reshape New Yorkers’ relationship to their Harbor.

Several new reefs are getting underway this summer, to join the already-existing pilot reef off Governors Island, which has been the major learning platform for oyster restoration efforts in the city since cultivation began in 2010. These reefs, placed at strategic locations throughout the Harbor, will be sites for restoration and community education.

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Katie Mosher-Smith, BOP’s Reef Construction & Monitoring specialist, says that community reefs will allow New Yorkers “to see what restoration looks like..to get up close to the work that’s happening under water.  They can walk up to it, they can wade up to it, they can float up to it, they can touch it.  And it’s the beginning of a very large scale ecological shift that will improve the ecological stability of the Harbor— adding to the richness of each of these areas.”

Two of the new reefs will be located off the shores of Brooklyn Bridge Park and Bush Terminal Park; one other site is in development. They’ll do what reefs always do– filter the Harbor’s water and provide habitat for marine life such as crabs, blackfish, and sea squirts– but they’ll also serve as ways to bring the public into the work of BOP. Community volunteering, citizen science workshops, and other forms of public engagement will bring neighbors down to the shoreline and get them involved in the hands-on work of restoration and reef monitoring.

Sunset Spark, for example, has pioneered this new model of community engagement by organizing community oyster monitoring events for local children and families. An organization dedicated to helping kids and families with immigrant backgrounds learn science and technology skills, Sunset Spark is a natural local partner for the Community Reefs program.

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The reef in Bush Terminal Park is already underway: on June 30, BOP staff and Harbor School interns positioned so-called “oyster cabinets” in the protected waters of the BTP lagoon. These welded rectangular structures were designed and built by students of the BOP flagship school, Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, and the installation staffers including several program associates who, having graduated from Harbor School, are spending their summer back at work on BOP. The first oysters were introduced on that same day, in hanging “oyster files” that are slotted into the cabinets, and a recent check-up revealed that they were thriving: they had grown to five times their original size in just one week in New York Harbor’s water.

Says Mike McCann, The Nature Conservancy’s BOP scientist in residence, “Community reefs are an opportunity for nonscientists to learn about their waters and become more engaged in the water that surrounds them. The Bush Terminal Park site is great, because Sunset Park is a coastline community but doesn’t have a lot of points of access to the coast. Bush Terminal Park itself is quite new, just about two years old. These reefs are a way to help neighborhood people understand that they live on a waterfront, that they are a coastal community.”

Reef-building will continue throughout the summer, at BTP, at Brooklyn Bridge Park, and elsewhere. Once the reefs are built, the public will be able to participate through programs run by community groups such as Sunset Spark. BOP’s community reefs program emphasizes the fact that while success will involve restoring the Harbor’s ecology by bringing back living, self-sustaining reefs, it will also involve renewing New Yorkers’ relationship to their waterfronts. Community reefs are a way for local groups to partner with BOP, reactivating local waterfronts as community members of all ages learn how to take part in the hands-on work of restoring their own marine neighborhoods.

“What kids respond to,” says Mosher-Smith, “is the sheer excitement of what’s happening under the water maybe just feet from their apartment– you pull out an oyster cage and there are twenty different organisms, all growing in different directions, all different colors, moving, eating, pulsing, wiggling— and kids can see them, kids can touch them. That’s what’s exciting.  And it’s all just outside their front doors, just down at the waterfront.”