Second chance for NY oysters

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TO TOURISTS on nearby Liberty Island, it looked like another eco- vandal dumping into the waters of New York Harbour. A city fireboat moved to a nearby barge and turned its hoses on to what appeared to be grey stones on its flat deck, washing them into the ocean. Except that they were shells, not stones.

Nor were they any shells, but roughly 10,000 bushels of old - about 1,000- years old - oyster shells dug up months ago from the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. What the tourists were witnessing was step one in a noble attempt at returning oysters to New York harbour decades after their antecedents were ravaged almost to non-existence by over-harvesting and by human, industrial and agricultural pollutants.

Behind this unlikely scene on Thursday was an aquatic environmental group called Baykeepers which has its home in San Francisco. In collaboration with similar organisations in the New York area, Baykeepers was tipping the shells into harbour just south of Liberty Island, where the statue stands, in the hope that it will form a reef on which a new and healthy colony of oysters will quickly develop.

The experiment illustrates how far the waters around Manhattan have recovered since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 when all life in them had been extinguished by overfishing and waste.

Today, according to city and state officials, the whole harbour is cleaner than at any time since 1909, when monitoring began. And the resulting regeneration has been astonishing. Earlier this year, for example, the state confirmed that striped bass, which once provided local fishermen with a lucrative trade, have become almost pollutant-free, 23 years after they were declared unfit for human consumption because of contamination by toxic PCBs.

Now it is hoped that even oysters will be able to flourish, while, at the same time, contributing to the cleansing process. Most usefully, oysters, if they come back, will help rectify a new problem that has come with the renewed ecological health of the harbour: the thickening spread of algae blooms. Algae is an oyster's favourite meal. Known as bivalves for a reason, adult oysters will each filter about 25 gallons of water a day.

"We're trying to give nature a kickstart," said Ben Longsteth of Baykeepers, which is spending $35,000 on the project.

The location, far from populated shores, was chosen in part to discourage poachers. But there was a historical reason also: in the time of early Dutch settlers in New York, both Liberty and Ellis Islands were known as the Oester, or Oyster, Islands because of the abundance around them of the mollusc.

Eventually, if the reef works well, they may be enough oysters to return them to restaurants and the fish market. Exactly 80 years after local oysters were declared unfit for human consumption in 1919, they may at last be on the brink of a limited comeback. With some belated human assistance.