New York Harbor Oysters: Then and Now

Oysters have been an iconic staple in the New York area since before Henry Hudson sailed through in the 1600s.  There were oyster beds encircling Manhattan, Staten Island, and an oyster bed chain that extended from Sandy Hook, NJ to Peekskill, NY.  The Lenape People loved eating oysters, as did the Dutch and English after them.  By the early 1800s, oysters were so abundant throughout NYC that the shells were even used to pave (and name) Pearl Street.  They were one of New York City’s first street foods and were sold on street corners to rich and poor alike for about 1 penny each, the equivalent of thirty cents today.

Thomas H. McAllister. [Oyster Stand], ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.10037.

Thomas H. McAllister. [Oyster Stand], ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.10037.

Industrial waste pollution and over-harvesting of waterways caused the demise of NY Harbor’s 220,000 acres of oyster reefs.  By 1910, 600 million gallons of raw sewage were being dumped into the harbor daily and the last of NYC’s oyster fisheries closed in 1927.  After 50 years of a virtually lifeless harbor, the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, preventing further dumping into the harbor and making way for a regeneration of life.

 

Oyster stand at South Street Seaport / Image courtesy of NYCVintageImages.com

Oyster stand at South Street Seaport / Image courtesy of NYCVintageImages.com

Today, oyster bed restoration projects can be found all along the NJ/NY coast.  A notable one is the Billion Oyster Project, a program that works with high schoolers and middle schoolers from 36 local public schools to achieve the organization’s goal of restoring one billion oysters and 100 acres of oyster reefs to New York Harbor by 2030.  Check out the work they are doing here:

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