In 1609, when explorer Henry Hudson started to sail up the great river that would later bear his name, he and his crew were visited by four canoes full of Native Americans who brought a “very great store of very good oysters aboard.”

The oyster restoration program director for New York-New Jersey Baykeeper, Meredith Comi, can imagine the oyster population in the estuary at the time of Hudson’s explorations.

“When he arrived, I have a picture in my mind of oyster reefs everywhere,” she says. “Not only subtidal, where people didn’t see, but also all along the coasts, so that they were extremely plentiful.”

Unfortunately, there are no longer any oyster reefs, which are densely packed underwater communities of oysters, left within the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. The Hudson-Raritan Estuary is a system of bays and tidal rivers where the Hudson, Hackensack, Passaic, Rahway and Raritan rivers meet the Atlantic Ocean. The New York/New Jersey Baykeeper’s oyster restoration program is attempting to refill the estuary with a vibrant population of oysters.

“The oysters that are still around, there’s not enough of them to produce a critical mass of larvae [baby oysters] to repopulate anything, so . . . we kind of have to start all the way at the beginning and purchase larvae from other labs, actually, and jump-start the whole reef process,” Comi says.

Comi says that several factors have contributed to the demise of oyster reefs in the region. One factor is humanity’s voracious appetite for the species during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Another factor is that people were keeping the oyster shells for chicken feed or to construct buildings, rather than returning them to the water. Oyster larvae need the shells to develop.

The Hudson-Raritan Estuary was also frequently polluted by sewage spills as it developed into the busiest harbor in the world. Though oysters are resilient creatures, the mollusks started to become contaminated with diseases like cholera and typhoid at the end of the 19th century. When humans began to get sick from dining on these contaminated oysters, harvesting on the Hudson-Raritan Estuary’s oyster beds began to be shut down.

New York-New Jersey Baykeeper

Since 1999, New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, an organization seeking to restore and protect the Hudson-Raritan Estuary, has been working on restoring oyster beds to the region. The restoration effort allows for individuals and groups to join the organization’s oyster gardening program.

After attending a mandatory two-hour training session, participants are sent out with an oyster float. An oyster float is basically a bag held up in the water by two pontoons, or floating supports, and 500 to 1,000 baby oysters. Participants observe the oysters’ growth for about a year, before being given the opportunity to plant their oysters on the reefs that the organization is attempting to rebuild.

Comi says that many of New York-New Jersey Baykeeper’s oyster gardeners are middle school and high school students. “They really become invested and attached to the waters here, and what’s in it,” she says. “It’s been really taking off as a learning tool, an education tool.”

The oyster restoration program director believes that oysters are a keystone species, or a species that is critical to the structure of an entire ecological community.

“This is one species that in the food web of the estuary really structures that whole food web,” she says. “If you remove the oyster, a lot of other food chains are going to collapse because the oyster reefs provide a lot of that habitat.”

Comi says that the animals and plants that congregate around oyster reefs include worms, crabs, algae, mussels, flounder, black drum, and bass. At two sites where Baykeeper is creating oyster reefs—in New Jersey’s Navesink River and Keyport Harbor—some of these species are returning to the area.

“Even just adding shells increased the habitat a little bit,” Comi says. “A lot of anemones and things were then there.”

Besides having oyster reefs become habitat for other organisms, oysters are prized for their impressive filtering abilities. Oysters feed by sucking in water, extracting algae and other nutrient particles, and then releasing cleaner water. An adult oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day. This benefits the estuary by getting rid of algae, improving water clarity, and halting waterways from being overcome by sediment.

Comi says that having a healthy oyster population in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary is in line with New York-New Jersey Baykeeper’s attempts to restore the Hudson-Raritan Estuary habitat. “Our goals are simple,” she says. “We want improved water quality here. As oysters filter, it cleans the water.”

Back to the Bottom
It is not safe to eat oysters from the Hudson-Raritan Estuary, because pollution is so high.

New York/New Jersey BayKeeper
For information on becoming an oyster gardener with New York-New Jersey Baykeeper, visit the organization's website.

Diverse Estuary
The Hudson-Raritan Estuary has 650 miles of shoreline. It includes New York's pristine Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, as well as the busiest harbor in the entire world, Upper New York Bay.

algae
Plural Noun

(singular: alga) diverse group of aquatic organisms, the largest of which are seaweeds.

Noun

body of water partially surrounded by land, usually with a wide mouth to a larger body of water.

black drum
Noun

type of marine fish.

canoe
noun, verb

small, open boat with pointed ends.

cholera
Noun

infectious, sometimes fatal disease that harms the intestines.

Noun

edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

congregate
Verb

to gather.

contaminate
Verb

to poison or make hazardous.

demise
Noun

death or end.

Noun

mouth of a river where the river's current meets the sea's tide.

extract
Verb

to pull out.

filter
Verb

to remove particles from a substance by passing the substance through a screen or other material that catches larger particles and lets the rest of the substance pass through.

Noun

all related food chains in an ecosystem. Also called a food cycle.

frequent
Adjective

often.

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

Noun

part of a body of water deep enough for ships to dock.

Henry Hudson
Noun

(died 1611) English explorer and navigator.

Noun

organism that has a major influence on the way its ecosystem works.

larva
Noun

a new or immature insect or other type of invertebrate.

mandatory
Adjective

required.

mollusk
Noun

large phylum of invertebrate animal, all possessing a mantle with a significant cavity used for breathing and excretion, a radula (except for bivalves), and the structure of the nervous system. 

Native American
Noun

person whose ancestors were native inhabitants of North or South America. Native American usually does not include Eskimo or Hawaiian people.

New York-New Jersey Baykeeper
Noun

organization seeking to protect the Hudson-Raritan Estuary.

Noun

substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

oyster float
Noun

structure designed to grow oysters before they are large enough to be planted in a reef.

oyster gardening
Noun

the art and science of growing oysters.

oyster reef
Noun

aquatic habitat made of layers of oysters.

particle
Noun

small piece of material.

pollute
Verb

to introduce harmful materials into a natural environment.

pontoon
Noun

floating support for an object.

resilient
Adjective

able to recover.

sea anemone
Noun

type of marine animal related to corals and jellies.

Noun

solid material transported and deposited by water, ice, and wind.

sewage
Noun

liquid and solid waste material from homes and businesses.

shell
Noun

hard outer covering of an animal.

subtidal
Adjective

area beneath the lowest tide, or always underwater.

tidal river
Noun

river whose flow is affected by ocean tides.

typhoid
Noun

infectious, sometimes fatal disease that harms the intestines. Also called typhoid fever.

vibrant
Adjective

lively.

voracious
Adjective

eating or hungering for large amounts of food.

water quality
Noun

chemical, physical, and biological characteristics of water for a specific purpose such as drinking.