It was my first time on a ferry. A brisk breeze, characteristic of early spring, cut through my jacket. A bell soon began to toll, and the boat started to dock. Along with dozens of others, I leaned over the railing and watched the shore grow closer. My boots were soon splashing in a shallow puddle, the first steps I had ever taken on Governors Island. I would find that this day was to contain many firsts.
My biology teacher’s brief description of the Billion Oyster Project (BOP) had been instantly intriguing. Up until that point, all I had associated with oysters were pearls. The notion they could play some critical role in our environment sparked my curiosity. Following a BOP organizer deeper into the island, I remembered the promise I had made to my teacher to give the program a chance. “Here I am,” I thought. The next few hours were as educational as they were inspirational. The BOP has an ambitious goal. By 2035 it hopes to add one billion live oysters to the New York Harbor ecosystem.
Oysters, as I learned that day, play an important role in the marine environment as a keystone species. As filter feeders, a single oyster is capable of cleaning up to 50 gallons of water a day. They are also essential to nutrient cycling, habitat structure, and food webs of environments in which they occur. The New York Harbor has for decades been a nearly lifeless and revoltingly polluted body of water. The BOP aims to turn it into the thriving ecosystem it once was by taking cues from a highly successful program down south in the Chesapeake Bay, the Oyster Recovery Partnership.
The BOP building housed tanks full of animals caught in the harbor. I gazed at the oysters, fish, seahorses, and starfish in wonder. Who knew the shores of our grimey old city could sustain animals like this? I eagerly anticipated working with these little creatures, but the organizers had other ideas for us. The volunteers were escorted to a dingy room filled with wire sheets and various tools. As the organizer explained what we would be doing with these materials, my face fell. Once we got started, within minutes my hands grew sore and calloused, and after several hours of assembling oyster cages I was sure I would not come back after the day’s end.
This was the color of my thoughts when the organizers called all the volunteers to the shore. Two men wearing orange vests sat in a dinghy at the boat launch ramp. “You guys did a fantastic job today, and we thought we would show you exactly what you were working for.” One by one the volunteers joined the orange-clad men for a short trip around the shore. When it was my turn, I gingerly stepped onto the boat, hoping to get it over with quickly. Several hundred feet away from the island, one of the men pointed to a dark shape underneath the water. My eyes widened as I recognized it. Dozens, no hundreds, of cages of oyster shells, formed an expansive body, the end of which was obscured by the muddy water. Each shell was implanted with, according to the men, oyster larvae, ready to grow and become a part of the harbor. The throbbing of my callouses suddenly became pleasant as I realized the impact we were having.
As it would turn out, I went back to Governors Island several times over the course of months, eventually doing everything from building additional gabions, or oyster shelters, to gathering shells for the implantation of oyster larvae.
There were several important lessons I learned from my experiences. For one thing, volunteering at the BOP deepened my understanding of what it means to volunteer or work for the direct benefit of others. Going out of my way to help the BOP proved to be an enriching experience that I could never have imagined. I was able to explore Governors Island, a place that was at the time closed to the public. My knowledge of the marine biology in our very city was enhanced through direct observation. I met new people and saw new places and things. I would not have experienced any of this if I had not decided to take the day to help out at the BOP. The lesson I learned from this, therefore, is that though the reason for helping others should be for others’ gain, oftentimes we ourselves, the helpers, benefit just as much.
My time with the BOP also made me challenge the relationship I thought I had with safekeeping our environment. My favorite activities are mountain biking and hiking and I have a deep appreciation for the natural world. The BOP taught me that caring for our planet does not mean becoming the next Greta Thunberg. When our adversaries are as formidable as greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and deforestation, it is easy to feel helpless. What can any one person do? However, it is important to realize that local efforts like the BOP, small as they may seem, are exactly the kinds of solutions we need to make sure our natural treasures remain intact for generations to come.
As a New Yorker, I am proud to be a part of a cause that helps my local community and environment. It is gratifying to know that I am making a difference where I can.
Abdullah Sayed is a 17-year-old self-proclaimed nerd. When he is not reading, you can find him biking down the streets of Queens, New York. Abdullah loves spending time in nature and hunting down strange bugs.
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