Billion Oyster Project wants to create a more sustainable NYC through bivalves

The group is working to protect NYC from flooding and other catastrophes with the help of many, many oysters.

Will Gleason
Written by
Will Gleason
Content Director, The Americas
Billion Oyster Project
Photograph: Courtesy Billion Oyster Project

After the remnants of Ida ravaged the New York region this week with record rainfall and unprecedented flooding, it’s more clear than ever that all of us need to be doing everything we can to combat climate change. To help, Time Out New York will be regularly highlighting local community groups and activist organizations working to make a difference now in the world of sustainability—and letting you know how you can get in on the action to help.

First up: Billion Oyster ProjectFormed in 2014, Billion Oyster Project is an initiative with a very clear goal: to restore live oysters to the New York Harbor. The harbor was once home to 220,000 acres of oyster reefs. Not only can an adult oyster filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, but oyster reefs provide habitats for hundreds of species. Oyster reefs are also natural storm barriers—they lessen the blow of large waves, prevent erosion and—you’ll want to pay extra attention to this one—reduce flooding. 

So far, the organization has made some great strides toward meeting its goal. They’ve installed 14 oyster reef sites across the city, have discovered oyster shells reproducing in the harbor and have collected 1.5 million pounds of recycled shells thanks to helping from their lead shell collection program funder, Talisker Single Malt Scotch Whisky. "We're looking to restore a billion oysters by 2035," says shell collection program manager, Charlotte Boesch. 

Want to help out with the collection effort? Lucky for you, there’s an easy and enjoyable way to do that: go out to eat! As part of the group’s collection efforts, they’ve partnered with 75 local NYC restaurants, giving them an opportunity to donate their discarded shells to the project. You can find a full list of participating restaurants here, so you can make some reservations, order extra oysters and know they’ll be ending up in a good place. 

As part of this project, the group is also advocating for Senate Bill S4741, which may finally make it to the floor next spring. The bill would provide an extra incentive for restaurants to donate their shells by providing them with a tax credit.  

"Oysters have always been a part of our city's harbor ecosystem, and for good reason: They're not only tasty, but they also play a vital role in our biodiversity by keeping our waters clean and protecting other marine species with their reefs,” says one of the bill’s co-sponsors, State Senator Zellnor Myrie. “With New York's restaurant industry facing the most challenging conditions in recent history, our bill would provide tax relief to businesses that voluntarily collect and recycle oyster shells to restore our waterways. It's a win-win for our hospitality industry and the environment. I recommend them grilled with butter and parsley!" 

One of Billion Oyster Project’s last big fundraising events before that bill might move forward next spring is the Billion Oyster Party happening on September 23. That event, taking place at The Liberty Warehouse on September 23, will raise money that will directly support the project’s ongoing restoration and education work. The event is the group’s largest annual event and was sadly canceled last year due to Covid-19. Thirty oyster farmers from across the country will shuck bivalves for guests at the party and 10–12 of their restaurant partners will be serving food.

In the meantime, the Billion Oyster Project is hoping for hospitality professionals, as well as consumers, to reach out to their local reps and ask that they speak out in support of Senate Bill S4741. "Call your rep, call your senator, call your assemblymember, and tell them why you support the bill," says Bosech. 

The Billion Oyster Project also invites volunteers to lend a hand on Governors Island every summer from May through October. You can find out more about all ongoing volunteer opportunities here so you can get out there and shuckin’ do something about it.

Additional reporting by Amber Sutherland-Namako

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