Historically New York Harbor supported hundreds of square kilometers of oyster beds, yielding perhaps 700 million harvested oysters per year at its peak in the late 1880s (Kurlansky 2006, Royte 2006, Bain et al. 2007). By the 1920s, the beds had become unharvestable because of depletion of the resource and closures from raw sewage contamination (reviewed in Kirby 2004). When the Hudson River ... [Show full abstract] Foundation took the lead in investigating the feasibility of restoring oyster populations and the reefs they form in the New York Harbor region, they assembled a team of scientists in 2009 from around the U.S. with expertise in oyster restoration, aquaculture, ecology, pathology, genetics, and other disciplines. The initial result was the Oyster Restoration Research Project (ORRP) which was designed to build upon previous studies in the region (e.g., Franz 1982, Bain et al. 2007, Starke et al. 2011) and assess oyster restoration potential at five sites, each with different environmental regimes, from the lower Hudson River to Staten Island. Phase 1 of this study was completed in 2012 (Grizzle et al. 2013) and Phase 2 is underway, focusing on larger scale restoration at one pilot site in the Bronx at Soundview Park. Orff briefly describes these efforts in her essay, and both of us have been a part of the project since before 2009. Based on our experiences in the region and elsewhere we are responding to Orff's essay "Shellfish as Living Infrastructure," providing some context from our restoration work and others. Our aim here is to comment on her proposed approaches in light of a shifting focus in the last few decades to oyster restoration for ecological reasons rather than mainly human harvest.
In her essay, Orff provides a vision of how to proceed with shellfish restoration in the region. It is a vision of ropes, nets, and pilings with oyster reefs underneath, all constructed in the shallow waters of an urban landscape. The ropes and nets colonized by mussels and other filter-feeders result in a complex biotic community dominated by filter feeding bivalves cleaning up the water and providing habitat for other species, as well as recreational (fishing, harvesting) and other benefits for humans. Orff also visualizes a hypothetical ". . . post superfund Gowanus Canal as a seeding ground for oyster spat, which could be cultivated . . . and maintained by community organizations" (page 318, this issue). Overall, her vision represents a ". . . hybrid 'eco-infrastructural' approach (that) brings together hardened shorelines, potential seawall barriers together with living ecological habitat systems to form a more resilient harbor landscape" (page 321, this issue). All this is conceptually appealing. However, to us its individual components resemble yet another coastal structure likely to be swept away by the next storm, or notions that are otherwise quite problematic. We agree that there is a need to make our shorelines more resilient, but Orff has in our view gone too far afield of possibilities in her conceptualization without a realistic ecological or administrative (shellfish and human health management) framework. We are writing this response and informative essay that we believe she could benefit from, especially with respect to seeking input from experts in other relevant disciplines.
Oyster restoration programs mainly concerned with sustaining a resource for human consumption have existed since the 1800s (Brooks 1891, Kirby 2004, NRC 2004, Lotze et al. 2006, Beck et al. 2009). During the 1990s, however, the notion that oysters also were important ecologically began to be more widely recognized (Kennedy 1996, Luckenbach et al. 1999). Subsequently, oyster restoration programs that included to some extent both of the roles that oysters potentially play (human food resource and ecological importance) were initiated in North America, Europe, and other areas (Brumbaugh et al. 2000a, b, Brumbaugh and Coen 2009). In the U.S., these programs are mainly administered at the state level, and there is quite a diversity of goals, metrics and success criteria among them (Coen and Luckenbach 2000, French-McCay et al. 2003, Coen et al. 2004, Brumbaugh et al. 2006, Beck et al. 2009, 2011, Baggett et al. 2013). Today, we are still grappling with how to manage oysters as both a food resource for human consumption and for their ecological importance.