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Reflections from Citizen Scientist Andrea Bearbower

By Heather Flanagan
April 6, 2016

“How nature entwines through New York is altogether absurd, hysterical, and hopeful.”

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Andrea Bearbower with Rainer, her “citizen scientist co-pilot” and one of her oyster cages at Erie Basin in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Behind a certain Swedish furniture-and-meatball emporium, adjacent to an NYPD tow pound and within sight of a spectacularly moody, long abandoned Port Authority grain terminal, Andrea Bearbower is growing hundreds of oysters.  But she’s not a marine biologist or conservationist- she’s just a regular New Yorker who volunteers as a citizen scientist with the Billion Oyster Project.  Here, Andrea shares with us what she’s working on, why she loves it, and why her experiences with BOP students make her so hopeful about the future.

“I am a Billion Oyster Project volunteer.  I have 3 cages which I maintain.  The first cage is an original cage stocked with 400 oysters that are approximately 3 years old.  These oysters have been successful where they have been growing in the Erie Basin in Brooklyn, despite being submerged in a water source that has significant pollution.  The other cage is new and I’ll soon be following the enhanced protocol that Billion Oyster Project has established.  The final cage is a ‘condo’ of sorts.  It’s a big cage with no protective lid. The idea with the condo is to see how the oysters survive without protection from natural predators.

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I love this volunteer project.

When I mention that I grow oysters in Manhattan in the context of fun, passing conversation among work colleagues it elicits reactions that range from disbelief to snarky jokes about the oysters having six heads due to pollution.  I’m not growing oysters in Chernobyl but I might as well be because people can’t comprehend the relationship of nature and New York City nowadays.  The opportunity in oyster restoration starts with changing the paradigm from separation of nature and New York to a delicate and respectful interdependence between nature and the city.

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I am delighted in the discovery of how beautifully nature envelops this city and the Billion Oyster Project is my favorite volunteer activity to connect me.

It’s easy to forget that Manhattan is an island in a harbor surrounded by waterways that feed to the ocean.  We spend time underground in the subways only to emerge into glass buildings all to the tune of the hurried sounds of vehicular traffic. Our urban environment has muted nature.

How nature entwines through New York is altogether absurd, hysterical and hopeful.  Wild oysters grow on tires dumped in the waterways.  Fish swimming through cars can be found in the water near LaGuardia.  Orange sponges and tunicates grow on the oyster cage giving it a cartoon-like color and texture. All of these experiences demonstrate how nature and urban elements collide. But can we marry them? The Billion Oyster Project teaches me that although I am not a scientist, or even a nature hippie, I can live in an urban environment and be more connected to the elements that surround me so that I can better understand it, protect it and educate others so that when I’m sitting at a table making conversation with someone, I might convince just one person that we can live interdependently, which we must if any of us want to survive.

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Recently I’ve had that chance to share some of my experience with children in the public school system who are learning about oysters through the Billion Oyster Project.  Their engagement in the project reminds me of the hope of the future.  The Billion Oyster Project’s outreach to children in schools is brilliant because in order for this project to be successful, future generations must become involved.  It gives me a great sense of pride to be part of the project and be part of the educational efforts!”

On Andrea’s last trip to her Oyster Restoration Station (ORS), her role took on new importance. Responding to a call for a volunteer ORS educator, Andrea, who was at this moment 9 months and 8 days pregnant (!!!) gladly agreed to help out and lead a group of students from the local Good Shepherd Services after-school program. GSS is the implementing partner on pillar 4 of CCERS, working closely with the New York Academy of Sciences to host after-school STEM mentors. These graduate and post-doctoral students spend one to two afternoons per week mentoring GSS students and co-teaching alongside GSS staff.

The CCERS after-school curriculum consists of BOP-focused, inquiry-based STEM lessons. This means that the group of 15 GSS students that Andrea linked up with at the IKEA waterfront were not only eager and excited, but had extensive background knowledge on oysters and the estuary. This level of conceptual understanding came across clearly for Andrea in how the students communicated and carried themselves on the trip. Andrea was impressed her with their “level of engagement and knowledge base,” adding, “it showed me how hopeful the whole project is to see another generation take it on.”  She commented that “it was evident that they’d studied, because when they got to see the real deal they knew exactly what they were looking at- it was really neat, really satisfying.”

While the students loved the opportunity to touch and feel the oysters, it appears that an invertebrate interloper stole the show:

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“The crabs overshadowed the oysters!  [The students] were so excited to see the crabs and the fish.  I let them know that they were predators, but we were so excited to save the fish- we knew we had to get those back in the water- and they were pulling them out and I told them they were heroes for saving the fish, and it gave them a real sense of purpose.”

Click here for further reports from the field featuring dedicated BOP Citizen Scientists like Andrea, GSS students, and other after-school programs around the city. BOP Schools and the CCERS project are greatly enriched by the efforts of volunteer citizen scientists like Andrea. They add increased accuracy and reliability to the ORS datasets, they serve an educational and inspirational role for students, and they help to broaden the BOP community and impact of the CCERS project well beyond the walls of the school. For all of these reasons and more – not to mention being in the field at 8 days overdue! –  we are extremely grateful to Andrea and all the BOP citizen scientists like her.

In that vein, we’re excited to welcome a very special citizen scientist gearing up to help at BOP!  Here he is getting started with his very own horseshoe crab:

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Thanks to all of our volunteers and keep up the amazing work!

Interested in reading more about BOP-CCERS and how we’re bringing hands-on restoration science to classrooms all over the city?  Sign up for our newsletter and click here to read all BOP-CCERS posts!