Restoring the Bay One Oyster at a Time

NY/NJ Baykeeper hopes that the growth of oysters at the shoreline will be the key to prevent sea-levels from rising in the future

Interview by: Viktoria Pashtriku

Meredith Comi is the Oyster Restoration Program Director at NY/NJ Baykeeper. She talks with us about the challenges that arise while restoring oysters and the current water quality of the New York and New Jersey bay area.

Viktoria Pashtriku: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Let’s begin with discussing how NY/NJ Baykeeper was formed and what its mission is.

Meredith Comi: NY/NJ Baykeeper was formed a little over 20 years ago. We’re a bi-state organization so we work in both New York and New Jersey. We have three main missions: 1) Advocacy lawyers who work in policy and advocacy, 2) Conservation funding to protect parks and a 3) Restoration Program which I run.

For the Restoration Program, we do oyster restoration and living shoreline work which has evolved tremendously over the years. It started with shoreline oyster gardening off of people’s docks and was extended to reef building, with an educational component.

In 2014 we gave the reef building program to the Harbor School, so now we focus on research and restoration projects. We have had several reef sites. We had one, here, in Keyport Harbor of New Jersey, a second one in the Navesink River in New Jersey and a third one at the Naval Weapons Station Earle in NJ, which is a naval base in Middletown, NJ.

It’s been interesting to see how the organization has changed over the years. Our biggest hurdles are regulatory agencies when it comes to achieving our mission.

VP: Can you tell us about the gardening program that was given to the Harbor School?

MC: Sure. We started with around 20 oyster gardens in NYC. I didn’t come on board until 2001. The idea was to observe if oysters could survive, since these waters were getting cleaner, and they did. We’ve had over 50 sites in NJ and NY through the years. 

In 2010, when the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) banned oyster restoration, research and education projects, we were left with just the NY gardens. Harbor School eventually folded our sites into their successful Billion Oyster Project program.

Navy volunteers dropping the castles into the water (Source: NY/NJ Baykeeper)

In NJ, the culmination of a year of oyster gardening was a reef planting party. When Baykeeper started our oyster work in the early 2000s, NJDEP was more flexible. Now it’s just the New York Sate Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) that provides that flexibility.  

We ended up with about 50 sites between NJ and NY. Just about anybody with access to the waters, like seniors or students, could engage in this project. They performed measurements, observations and we would record them. We ended up getting a grant with the Harbor School and The River Project around 2007-2008, when the Harbor School started using their students as stewards to help at the NY site.

They used that in their classes and included a middle school curriculum from the project. Once the gardening program was shut down here in NJ, we still had it running in NY and then it just made more sense for the Harbor School to take it over since they had a lot more grants and funding with educators. In return, we choose to focus on research.

VP: You mentioned that Baykeeper is focusing more on the research aspect of things, what exactly are you focusing on? What data were you collecting and how was that affected when you had to shut down in 2010?

MC: We were collecting data on growth, survivorship and water quality. We were using it as a means to get citizens involved, which is very important in educating them on ecology and estuaries. We were using this as a way to let people grow oysters into their adulthood so that we could stock them in our reefs. We benefited from that.

We also used the gardening sites as a way to determine where we should grow our reefs by ranking them on how well or poorly they did. This helped us draw conclusions about the different environments promoting growth and survivorship. So when it shut down in 2010, it was a huge blow. We had to collect our oysters from everybody. Some of our work, like in the Navesink River, had a large citizen scientist component. In other areas like Bayonne, students had never had the opportunity of a hands on project, which the gardening program provided.

The castles from the Living Shoreline installation underwater (Source: NY/NJ Baykeeper)

VP: That’s when you started working together with the Navy, correct?

MC: Yes, we first did a pilot study to test whether the oysters would survive in the waters and they did. They survived Hurricane Sandy, so from there we aimed to repeat what we had done at Keyport in 2009. When NJDEP shut down the Keyport project, we only had about 10 months of data.

When Hurricane Sandy hit and our aquaculture facility was destroyed, the Navy allowed us to rebuild and we just relocated there. We had to communicate and negotiate with the Navy to kick start everything again. We ended up getting a permit for almost 11 acres, which is the largest permit in the NY Harbor for oyster research and restoration. So we redid the designs and plots we had undertaken in Keyporttesting three artificial structures.

VP: What are the benefits and challenges you’re faced with while working with the navy?

MC: It’s been going great, but there are some setbacks. For one, we can’t use volunteers there. In addition, while they work well with us, we must abide by their schedule so there are certain times we can’t work. But the oysters have done phenomenally. They have grown from little baby oysters oysters into adults since last summer. They went from about one millimetre, from when we put them out in August, to about 18 millimetres in October.

With the Living Shoreline Project, the Navy also has a larger vision for the property after the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. They are keen on protecting their infrastructure along the coast and asked us if there was a way to protect their shoreline, which was slowly eroding. With the help of a small grant and a partnership with Rutgers, we are implementing a pilot project there with the Navy. That will be our plan for the next few years.

VP: In regards to the oyster project, which goals and aspirations do you look forward to?

MC: Our goal is to keep populating that area with as many oysters as possible. This is something we all talk about, this is our foundation. We know we all need to contribute to understand what will help in its success. Since we’re at the Navy base, we have a better chance of placing more oysters without restrictions.

Also, we need to bring back reefs and habitats to the shoreline to increase the diversity of species, protect our coastlines and improve resilience.  

“The NY-NJ Harbor is a tough place to work, but somebody has got to do it.”

VP: You previously mentioned that you started working at NY/NJ Baykeeper in 2001. Why did you get involved in the Oyster Restoration Program?

MC: I have a degree in Biology and I worked in Haskins, which is a well-known research lab down in South Jersey. After a few years of working with them, I worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as an ecologist for a year. They were starting a new project in Baykeeper and my mentor in Sandy Hook reeled me into the project. So eventually, I started working with oysters full-time. I did leave for about three years to teach but came back because I enjoyed working in the field and making a difference too much. I came back in 2006 and I’ve been working here for a decade now.

VP: Would you like to add anything more about the project?

MC: This really just is a group effort. I wanted to add that we have a reef in the Bronx River that we’ve been working on with our partners. We are partnered with the Bronx River Alliance, NYC Parks, Hudson River Foundation, Rocking The Boat and the Harbor School. So there are a bunch of us out there doing this work and that is what is really needed. All these little projects need to be connected together. The NY-NJ Harbor is a tough place to work, but somebody has got to do it. 

VP: Thank you and it was lovely talking to you.

MC: Yes, it was great talking to you.

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