The noble oyster is making a comeback in New York. The city is taking advantage of the oysters’ natural ability to filter huge amounts of water to clean the effluent of a wastewater treatment plant in Jamaica Bay, on the non-Manhattan side of Brooklyn. Oysters aren’t picky eaters – they just suck in water, eat the organic bits, and squirt out the clean water. They can pretty much eat continuously to the tune of filtering up to 50 gallons of water per day per oyster. So New York will be using Poop Power to turn its waste into molluscan water-cleaning machines!
New York was fed and its waters kept clean by oysters for more than 200 years, but overharvesting and pollution finally did them in. The last oyster bed closed in 1927. (The “Cod” and “Salt” guy has also written an “Oyster” book, for those interested.) These modern pioneering oysters will not be edible, what with the toxins they will inevitably bioaccumulate, but edibility is almost beside the point. Along with filtering the water, these oysters will provide high-quality habitat to all kinds of other critters. The shells themselves are hard surfaces for tunicates and sponges to grow on, the space between the shells is a nice protected home for tiny bugs, and the whole structure is attractive to fish both for shelter and for eating said tiny bugs.
The big danger will be hypoxia, or low dissolved oxygen in the water. Oysters need to breathe just like all animals, and since they can’t exactly move out of the way, a low-oxygen incident (common in the summer in polluted waters) could easily kill them all in a matter of days. But if this works, it’s a huge step to giving Jamaica Bay back a bit of its former glory.