Alongside generous hand-outs from native Americans, the first European settlers to cross the Atlantic largely survived off the plentiful supplies of oysters that lined the coast of New York. Reading Tony Juniper’s wonderful new book, ‘What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?‘, on the plane over to a C40 workshop in NYC this week, I discovered that the humble oyster could play an equally important role in the survival of modern New Yorkers.
Oysters are heavy drinkers, gulping down an average of 200 litres of water a day in their attempt to extract nutrients from the sea. As such they provide a free cleaning service to the inhabitants of coastal towns, filtering out the nitrogen pollution that drains off the land from excessive fertiliser use in modern farming. Without oysters, the nitrogen stimulate excessive growth of algae, which gobbles up all the oxygen in the water effectively suffocating other marine life in the process.
This is no small service provided to humans by the humble oyster. The cost of nitrogen pollution in the European Union alone has been estimated to be twice the annual benefit accrued from higher crop yields through the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers. That amounts to between 70 and 320 billion euros (half to double the cost of the Greek bail-out).
But this is not oysters only service. As my good friend, Adam Freed – previously Deputy Director at the Mayor of New York’s Long Term Planning and Sustainability unit and now at the Nature Conservancy, explained over a wonderful meal at Freemans in the Bowery district, oyster beds may also be able to support protection from violent weather.
Effectively, the oysters act as a mini barrage, providing a hard sea bed which takes a little of the energy out of waves and storm surges. New York could use this kind of free protection from nature alongside more costly hard infrastructure and the restoration of beaches, wetlands and dunes, as it counts the cost of Hurricane Sandy and has to plan for a future where anthropogenic climate change means that such ‘one in a hundred year’ disasters are likely to become more frequent.
Interestingly, one option for stimulating new oyster bed growth could be the base of off-shore wind-turbines, creating a beautiful synergy between renewable energy, cleaner water and flood protection.
Of course there is some way to go before New York can truly reclaim the moniker of the Big Oyster. The bountiful oyster beds that provided sustanance to a ragged band of seventeenth century settlers were almost completely wiped out by the twentieth century. And industrial pollution means that it will be a while before a twenty-first century oyster harvest will be safe to consume. Globally, the Nature Conservancy ranks oysters as the most seriously damaged marine habitat on Earth – with eighty-five per cent of pre-industrial stocks now having been destroyed.
But it is inspiring to understand that something as primordial as an oyster could provide such an elegant solution to some very man-made modern dilemmas.
- Tony Juniper, ‘What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?‘, 2013
- Mark Kurlansky, ‘The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shelf‘, 2007
- Freemans: the kind of place you need local knowledge to find, let alone know about. It’s hidden up an alleyway off Chrystie Street in the Bowery District, and serves sumptuous food in nicely cramped old-curiosity-shop setting, replete with moose antlers on the walls. The ‘Devils on Horseback’ – prunes stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in bacon – were so good I had to had to have a carnivorous day. Find it at: 2 Freeman Alley, between Bowery and Chrystie and next door to the barber shop.