Filling New York Harbor with millions of oysters to fight pollution

An oyster farmer’s son is seeding NYC’s waters with shellfish. No, you can’t eat any of them.

Crain’s New York Business
By Cara Eisenpress
September 27, 2017

ISLAND IN THE STREAM Malinowski works to collect oyster shells that filter out nitrogen in the harbor. Photo: Buck Ennis

Nearly every weekday trucks pick up 4 tons of oyster shells from 70 restaurants across the city for the Billion Oyster Project. Peter Malinowski and a team of students and employees use them—an estimated one-tenth of the total amassed in the city each week—to build reefs and nurture oyster populations in New York Harbor.

Oysters filter out excess nitrogen—the harbor’s primary pollutant—produced by the city’s treated wastewater. And their beds could protect shorelines from storms like Sandy. The project has introduced 22 million of the mollusks into the harbor since it began in 2014, which means Malinowski has only 978 million to go.

“The project’s biggest impact is to convince New Yorkers to care about the natural resource that surrounds us: water,” he said. Malinowski grew up on Fishers Island in the Long Island Sound, where his parents [run] an oyster farm. After college he became an aquaculture teacher at the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School on Governors Island. When he thought up the Billion Oyster Project, he wanted an educational component. “Students get excited to realize there are grown-ups counting on them to do real work,” he said.

On Sept. 1 the Billion Oyster Project promoted Malinowski to executive director, overseeing its $4.2 million annual budget paid for by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery and other public and private sources.

Malinowski’s work offers a rare chance to discuss food and sewage in the same conversation, and he’s given restaurateurs a way to teach their staff and customers about problems with the city’s waterways.

“It’s not often that a business gets the opportunity to be involved in something so community-focused and where our particular expertise can be of such significant value,” said Ian MacGregor, CEO of The Lobster Place, which won the bid for a truck route to collect donated shells. Crave Fishbar partner Brian Owens added that it’s additional work, since kitchen staffers have to save oysters from plates and store them. “But we feel like we have a big impact,” he said.

Still, MacGregor admits to confronting a common confusion related to the project: The goal is not to develop city oysters for consumption. “In the public’s mind, the ultimate goal of creating the oyster habitat is to one day eat them,” he said. “The simple fact is that the sewage infrastructure in New York City will never allow us to eat shellfish from these waters.”

A version of this article appears in the September 25, 2017, print issue of Crain’s New York Business as “A shellfish pursuit”.

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