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Interview with Tanasia Swift, Community Reefs Regional Manager

July 26, 2018

This July, Coney Island locals installed a Community Oyster Reef (think community garden in New York Harbor), in the Lower Bay off of Coney Island. Tanasia tells us about the project’s origin and purpose.

We know that oyster reefs create habitat for thousands of species and can help to protect shorelines from storm damage. Why did we choose to put a reef here in Coney Island Creek?

Teachers and community scientists living near Coney Island Creek approached Billion Oyster Project and asked if we could work together to create a community reef. These folks had been participating in Billion Oyster Project through maintaining Oyster Research Stations, and they wanted to involve their community even more.

The motivations for installing a reef at Coney Island Creek have as much to do with awareness as with restoration. Some people go swimming in the creek at times when it is dangerous to do so, such as after combined sewage overflows (CSOs). Some shy away from the creek entirely, worrying that it’s always dangerous to touch the water. Part of this reef’s purpose is to provide a way for people to better get to know, and safely interact with, the water near their homes.

Who is helping care for the reef?

This project is funded by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR). Community members, students, and community organizations are taking the lead on monitoring the reef. These include Brooklyn Marine STEM Education Alliance (BMSEA), City Parks Foundation, Community Board 13, Coney Island Beautification Project, Coney Island History Project, Friends of Kaiser Park, I.S. 281 Joseph B Cavallaro, John Dewey High School, New York Aquarium, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA), Pace University, P.S 188 Michael E Berdy, P.S 90 Magnet School for Environmental Studies, P.S/I.S 288 Shirley Tanyhill School, and Rachel Carlson High School.

On July 16, the day of our installation, local fishermen offered advice on how to position the reef, helping us to avoid submerged structures. Some local fishermen also offered to help keep an eye on the reef.

Did you face challenges in installing the reef?

When we first submitted our proposal to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), they were hesitant to add a reef at this location because of other environmental challenges in these waters that needed to be tackled, such as a case of sewage illegally discharging into the water from a local housing development.

Our initial proposal called for a 5-cabinet reef, filled with .5 million oysters. In response to the DEC’s concerns, we proposed alternate structures (a floating platform and Oyster Research Stations) with fewer oysters. The agreed-upon solution was a middle-ground between the initial and modified proposal: one cabinet, with a maximum of 200,000 oysters.

One aspect of the DEC’s concern was that poachers may eat the oysters and get sick. At the end of each field season, the oysters in the reef will be replaced with a new cohort of younger oysters. The older oysters will be transferred to a different reef or nursery. This measure prevents oysters at this reef from growing to market size.

How many oysters were installed?

135,000 oysters were installed on July 16.

What kinds of structures were used?

Though reef monitoring isn’t your typical day at the office, our community reef structures are loosely inspired by filing cabinets! They are designed for easy accessibility.

The structure of the outer cabinet is pictured here:

The “files” full of oysters go in the cabinet and can be taken out for monitoring. During the install, we make an assembly line and pass the files to one another:

At this reef, we are testing out new material. Our steel files are typically coated with plastic to help reduce corrosion of the metal. In line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, we’d like to move toward zero-plastics in our materials, so at this reef we’re testing out uncoated files, using half coated and half uncoated files.

How will we measure results?

On the ecological side, we’ll measure oyster growth, biodiversity, and water quality. On the social side, we track the number of visits and individual visitors to the reef.

What was your favorite moment from the July 16 install?

Looking down from pier and seeing the reef in the water! As many times as I’ve visited the site and looked down into the water, seeing the actual reef in the water was almost unbelievable!


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