NOTE: There was a time when oysters were abundant in the waters surrounding New York City. But, decades of over-harvesting and pollution nearly decimated the oyster population in the Hudson Valley. Today, scientists are seeding the rivers, with oyster beds, in an attempt to revive the icons of the Hudson. Words: 1063 [Cover photo: Scientist Kate Mosher-Smith and her assistant wading into the Hudson]
Icons of the Hudson
Katie Mosher‐Smith pulls a pair of brown chest‐high waterproof overalls out of an old station wagon and steps into them. Her car is full of stuff — changes of clothing, bottles of water, and tools amidst a variety of loose equipment strewn in the front and back seats. She grabs a small device called a WISI and walks into the Hudson River.
“It’s a great day to be out here,” says Mosher. The sun pounds on her back as a slight cool breeze wafts over the beach. Days out of the office are rare and Mosher relishes the opportunity to work on this small driftwood‐littered beach located 35 miles North of Manhattan.
Mosher manages the Oyster Restoration Program (ORP) for New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, a non‐profit working to preserve and restore the Hudson‐Raritan Estuary, considered the most urban estuary in the world. ORP is one of many groups among a coalition of scientists, government entities, and non‐profits, who are all part of the Hudson River Estuary Comprehensive Restoration Plan (CRP). Mosher’s responsibility is to restore oysters and reefs in the estuary over the next five years.
“The short‐term plan is to create and monitor small reefs designed to mimic natural reefs so that we can see if it’s possible for large numbers of oysters to thrive in the area,” says Mosher. “The long‐term plan is to restore abundant oyster populations in the Hudson River and the surrounding estuary and, if we’re successful, the oyster reefs will benefit the entire ecosystem.”
She sloshes her way farther into the river toward a lone yellow buoy bobbing on the water.
Hastings‐on‐Hudson was once home to the Weckquaesgeek Native Americans. Historically, they are best known as the Indians who sold the island of Manhattan to Dutch traders for $24 worth of beads. That transaction, while considered laughable today, was of great value in the eyes of the Indians and to the Dutch traders with whom they bartered.
The Weckquaesgeek camped along the Hudson River during the summer months collecting oyster, clam, whelk, and quahog shells. In the winter they would grind, drill, and shape the shells into Wampum — the traditional sacred beads of Eastern Woodlands tribes. Because gold and silver were rare, Wampum became the first currency in the New World traded between European colonists and Native Americans. By 1641, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had made wampum legal currency and, as historical records show, it was used to pay taxes in Massachusetts and tuition at Harvard College.
Back then, the Indians favored this section of the river for its plentiful mollusks. Today, Mosher picks it for the abundant freshwater in its brackish mix that oysters prefer. High‐tech mapping of the muddy river bottom confirms that oyster reefs grew here thousands of years ago. Mosher calls the Hudson River a ‘historical creature’ that is an important part of New York history.
“It’s a story as much as a research project because we are going back in time and trying to remember what it was like when oysters were part of the culture.”
There was a time when New York was associated with oysters, possibly in the same way that we associate Hawaii with pineapples today.
“Before the 20th century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters,” says Mark Kurlansky, author of the bestseller, The Big Oyster: History on the Half‐Shell. “This was what New York was, to the world, a great oceangoing port where people ate succulent local oysters from their harbor. Visitors looked forward to trying them. New Yorkers ate them constantly.”
Until the late 19th century, oysters grew in great numbers throughout the Hudson River Estuary. In 1887, orator Robert Ingersoll noted the existence of oyster reefs along the shores of New Jersey and Brooklyn, in the East River, and in the Hudson River as far North as Sing‐Sing. He estimated that there were 350 square miles of oyster beds in the area. At the time, one could find oyster stands on nearly every corner of lower Manhattan, (replaced today by hotdog carts.) For a few pennies, one could enjoy a dozen oysters in a variety of ways — grilled, breaded and fried, cooked in broth, or eaten raw with a spritz of lemon.
The craving for sumptuous oysters went beyond the local region. Millions of oysters were shipped to U.S cities like Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, and San Francisco. European cities in England, France, and Germany also demanded oysters. Ingersoll says the oyster industry employed nearly 53‐thousand people. A chart by the state Commissioners of Fisheries, which documented oyster harvests in the Hudson River Estuary between 1880 and 1963, shows the enormous scale at which oysters were being taken out of the water: 18,277,434 pounds in 1891; 20,079,549 pounds in 1904; 24,835,433 in 1911 — the historical peak of the harvest. After 1911, oyster hauls progressively grew smaller every decade until, nearly half a century later, in 1963, the waters yielded only 394,000 pounds of oysters.
While the cultural and historical significance of oysters as a culinary delight remains a large part of New York history, Mosher says that environmental restoration, not cuisine, is the goal for the oysters being cultivated in the experimental reefs.
“Oysters add value for the transient species in the area,” says Mosher. “And, the oyster beds reduce water action as well.” The goal of Mosher and her team is to establish 500 acres of oyster reefs by 2015.
“We hope that other researchers will use the results of our study as the basis for more experiments,” says Mosher. “We want to encourage additional river projects that could benefit other plants and animals dependent on the Hudson River.”
Today, six project reefs are fully stocked and there are 300 thousand oysters in the river. During the winter, Mosher expects to lose about 10 percent of the batch to various factors including natural predators like starfish, crabs, and the oyster drill — a small animal with a conical drill‐shaped shell which bores into the oyster’s shell. The good news is, that, a majority of the oysters is expected to survive.
“Oysters have become this icon of possibilities in terms of restorative function in the harbor,” Mosher says. “Oysters are survivors... they are the icons of the Hudson.” ✿