Leftover Restaurant Oyster Shells — Yes, Oysters — Might Save New York's Harbor

This project is catching people's attention.

All over New York City, restaurants are saving their patron's oyster shells for the Billion Oyster Project.

More than 70 restaurants are participating in a program where they hand over their leftover oyster shells instead of throwing them out. From there, the shells are taken to Governor's Island, where they bathe in the sun for a year before being brought to a public high school that tries to re-plant oysters in the old shells.

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The students, many going through vocational training in marine sciences, grow oyster larvae in an "artificially induced springtime environment," according to NPR. When larvae begin growing, the students try to anchor them to the old shells. If successful, the new group of growing oysters will be moved to a cage or shellfish bag and then they begin to build a reef — right inside the New York Harbor.

But why does the Billion Oyster Project want more oysters in the harbor? As it turns out, oysters are much more than just a tasty appetizer. They filter water — a single oyster can clean as many as 50 gallons of water a day, according to the Billion Oyster Project. They create natural barriers in the water that help create "breakwaters," or those little waves you sometimes see in bodies of water. Those breakwaters are crucial for a city like New York, which is gearing up for rising sea levels over the coming years.

Oysters have another benefit, too: they are used as a shelter for all sorts of marine life. Some marine life even snack on them for food. So far, the Billion Oyster Project has already brought in more than 1 million pounds of shells from restaurants across the city.

"It's critical," Pete Malinkowski, the executive director of Billion Oyster Project, told NPR. "We need oyster shells to do our work, and the only place to get them is from restaurants."

A lot of the pollution in the New York Harbor is from sewage overflow, the Christian Science Monitor reported. That pollution contains nitrogen, which oysters are especially good at filtering out. Because the water in the harbor is constantly moving, the oysters may not be able to make the harbor pristine — but the Billion Oyster Project hopes they will ignite interest in restoring it.

"The major benefit, I think, is the involvement of the students in creating a cadre of people who care about the harbor and are going to want to protect it," John Waldman, a biologist at Queens College, told Christian Science Monitor.  

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