Oyster Monitoring with NY/NJ Baykeepers!
Some of you may remember my article on oyster gardens in Spigot Science earlier this year. It was a fun article to write and I learned a lot about the history of New York City waters and how we used to have the largest oyster population in the world.
Oysters are critical for the health of our waters because they filter the water and clean it, making it healthier for all of the animals that live in and around the water (including us!). Today, scientists are working to restore the health of our waters by replanting oyster gardens and establishing oyster reefs where they used to be.
When I was writing that article, I got the chance to talk with a lot of people who are planting oyster gardens and artificial reefs, but I didn't get to see any of this amazing process in action. So, this past Sunday, I was excited to join Dr. Allison Fitzgerald of NY/NJ Baykeeper to help monitor the reefs in the Bronx River in Soundview Park. The oyster reefs are located in the salt marshes of Soundview Park. Oysters love brackish water, a mixture of salt and fresh water.
Baykeeper's volunteer oyster monitoring program allows people like me to get hands-on in volunteering and understanding how oysters are changing the ecosystem for the better!
Oyster monitoring is a pretty hands-on activity. We used plastic pipes to help us walk through the mud, nets to collect organisms in the water, plastic tubs to float oyster baskets back to shore, calipers to measure the size of live oysters, oyster baskets (in the water), and pen and paper on shore!
Getting the Oysters to Study
Everything about oyster monitoring is fun! You get to see the reefs, check on the health of the oysters, and walk out to the reefs in low tide! The oysters for monitoring are in baskets in the water. So, the first thing we had to do was bring the baskets to shore. Even though we did this at low tide, the water was almost up to my waist. I was happy to have on waders that kept me nice and dry! Of course, low tide also means lots of mud. So, we used plastic pipes as walking sticks. They were very helpful (even if I did get stuck in the mud anyway!). Once we found the baskets we wanted to monitor, we put them in the plastic bins and floated them back to shore.
The reefs are right across from LaGuardia International Airport. There are two kinds of reefs here: a scientific reef set up for study and a natural reef. It's a great example of how nature and modernization/civilization are trying to live together.
The scientific reef was created from oyster shells that were donated. Those empty oyster shells created a surface for new oysters to attach to. In this reef, there are three kinds of structures: the new reef growing from the oyster shells, oysters in baskets that can be brought to shore to study, and big wire squares called gabions (that's a fancy word for a wire cage). The gabions are an experiment to keep the oysters from washing ashore in the tidal waters.
The natural reef is the reef structure that was there before they added the new reef. Because oysters were growing there, scientists thought that this would be a good site to begin replanting oysters. So, the new oysters are adding to the natural population. In the natural reef, we also see the effects of human interaction in nature. For example, we found an old car engine rusting in the water. The sturdy oysters had made that a home too, building on top of it.
(And where did the new oysters come from? Baby oysters, called spat, were grown at the New York Harbor school and brought to this site!).
Monitoring the Reef
So, what were we monitoring? Basically, we were using the baskets from the scientific reef to get an idea of how healthy the reef is. Once we brought the baskets back to shore, we had to comb through them. We were looking for: live oysters, other species living with the oysters, and clues about the health of the reef. We gathered around the baskets and pulled out the shells. There was a lot of mud on the oysters, so we had to look very carefully! We found lots of amphipods, tiny creatures found in aquatic environments. We also found crabs, grass shrimp, slipper snails and sponges. One of our volunteers wrote down everything we found on a data sheet. Finding so many species interacting in the oyster beds means the beds are healthy and doing well.
There were oysters everywhere, from empty shells to large oysters living along the shore to oysters in the monitoring baskets. When we found oysters in the baskets, we had to count them and measure their size with calipers. The good news is that there are lots and lots of oysters. The bad news is that the shoreline and the waters are still polluted. Here, you can see pictures of the shore where the oysters live alongside plastic trash, old tires, and weird trash like golf balls!
It takes lots of volunteers to help out on the reefs. On Sunday, we had volunteers like myself who were interested in learning more about oysters in New York and New Jersey. We were also joined by a group of awesome students from New Jersey City University who are studying biology.
Dr. Allison Fitzgerald was our fearless leader for the day! She taught us all about the reefs, the history of the project, and how to help with the monitoring. I'm really excited and hopeful about oyster restoration in our local waters. I can't wait to go back and volunteer again! Doesn't oyster monitoring sound great?
I've tried to give you a great sense of the day with photos and descriptions, but if you'd like to see all of the photos from the day, head on over to Flickr!