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BOP basics from a 12-year-old volunteer

By Susannah Black
April 3, 2015

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My name is Bella Pitman, and this past year I have had the pleasure of working with Murray Fisher, one of the founders of the Billion Oyster Project. The Billion Oyster Project’s volunteers work alongside Harbor School students and teachers to build and install oyster reefs, prepare recycled shell for seeding, sort and count baby oysters, and much more.

Helping maintain the health of the natural world is exactly why I am working with the BOP. I feel it is a serious issue that our waterways are so polluted. For example Gowanus Canal: it has become so polluted because of humanity’s actions. I feel that because we created such a mess of our estuaries, we should all make an effort to try and put them back to the condition that they were once in.

The Billion Oyster Project’s goal is to someday have one billion oysters back in the New York Harbor. Oysters help clean up the pollution because one oyster can filter 1 gallon of dirty harbor water per hour. The water at the beginning is filthy and once the oyster has filtered it, it will be crystal clear.

The way I became involved with the BOP was I was at school and a program came to talk to us about cleaning up the Gowanus Canal. I looked into the program because I was searching for a mitzvah project, but I found that I was too young to work with them. I told my parents about what I had heard and seen and I decided that I wanted to help clean some sort of nature.

One day my dad was talking to our new neighbor, Murray Fisher, and he learned that Murray had helped found and run the Billion Oyster Project. After that talk he came home and told me about his discovery. I asked my parents to see if I could meet Murray. Murray then came over to talk to me about what he was doing. As soon as I found out the purpose of this extraordinary project, I immediately wanted to help.

The way I help the Billion Oyster Project is, I obtain used (empty) oyster shells. My job consists of finding restaurants that are on the oyster pickup truck’s route; calling up the restaurants, figuring out who I should talk to about donating their used oyster shells; finding out if they even could supply our demand of shells per week; and if they would donate their empty shells weekly. We will in turn, place them back in the harbor to clean the water.

My job is important because in order for oysters to grow they need a shell (dead or alive) to latch onto. First, oysters have either male or female parts, depending on the year.  Oysters can change from male to female but in any given year they can only be one.  This prevents oysters from “self-fertilizing” for there are always two individuals that are contributing to each offspring.  The fertilized eggs then become larvae.  The larva swims around in the water column for 14-21 days.  After that period it is ready to settle out.  It is at this point (two to three weeks after fertilization) that the larva needs a shell to latch onto.

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48 hour old larva at 200x magnification

The problem with reproducing in New York Harbor is that the Harbor floor is mainly covered in mud beds, so when the oysters try and reproduce, the larvae get “stuck in the mud” and they never make it to an oyster shell. Some of the larvae make it to oyster beds, just not as many as needed to really influence the filtering system. The way that the BOP hopes to fix that is to place oyster beds in the harbor, so that the oysters have a more stable reproduction cycle.

Just think about it, if there were one billion oysters in the harbor, that would be one billion gallons of clean water each hour!