Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg may be blaming Sandy's widespread devastation on a little thing called climate change, but one local seafood expert says the damage would have been less severe if we still had oyster beds in New York Harbor to protect against storm surge.
Oysters aren't just delicious, they're also natural guardians of the waterways. In a Times op-ed piece today, contributor Paul Greenberg writes about the now-depleted beds that used to line the Hudson and East rivers, filtering water and breaking up big waves headed ashore. "Until European colonists arrived, oysters took advantage of the spectacular estuarine algae blooms that resulted from all these nutrients and built themselves a kingdom," Greenberg writes. "Generation after generation of oyster larvae rooted themselves on layers of mature oyster shells for more than 7,000 years until enormous underwater reefs were built up around nearly every shore of greater New York."
But the history of the more modern New York oyster is a sad one: Greenberg notes that as documented in depth in Mark Kurlansky's 2005 book The Big Oyster: New York on the Half Shell, oysters were eaten nearly to extinction by European colonists, the beds crushed and burned for roads and lime. The rest were poisoned by heavy pollution, as sewage and metals were dumped in local rivers.
The city started re-cultivating local oyster beds a few years ago, and recent environmental programs have been put in place to help their growth. But Greenberg points out that the New York oyster still has a long way to go, and since once-in-a-century storms look like they're going to be pretty frequent in the future, we could use an army of beds to protect us. Something to think about next time you take advantage of a $1 oyster happy hour, huh?