NEW YORK >> Torrential rain poured down on the team of scientists and conservationists on Jamaica Bay as their small boat slowly towed about 85 cages packed with 36,000 oysters, a species that once blanketed New York Harbor but is now nearly extinct there.
"We are quite the sight," Casey Stokes, an environmental scientist with HDR, an engineering firm, said Thursday as he steered the boat to a spot off Kennedy International Airport, where they would leave the oysters to grow, and hopefully, to reproduce.
With the placement of an additional 12,000 oysters in the coming weeks, the team will have added nearly 50,000 adult oysters to the bay, making it the largest single installation of breeding oysters in New York City, according to the Environmental Protection Department.
The project, led by the department, is the city's latest and largest attempt to restore a self-sustaining oyster population in Jamaica Bay in the hope of improving water quality, protecting the shoreline from erosion and reviving habitats for fish and wildlife.
The project is funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Interior Department's Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program. The Environmental Protection Department, which is contributing $375,000, is working with the Billion Oyster Project, an ecosystem restoration and education project that is trying to restore one billion oysters to New York Harbor.
Since 2010, the department has conducted two smaller oyster restoration projects, in Dubos Point Wildlife Sanctuary in Queens, and in Gerritsen Creek in Brooklyn. Those projects succeeded in getting oysters to grow in the harbor and release eggs, but scientists have not been able to get them to reproduce and sustain new generations, said John McLaughlin, the director of the department's Office of Ecological Services.
"It's a needle in a haystack," McLaughlin said. "The odds are just tremendous."
In the 1800s, New York Harbor was covered in oysters, McLaughlin said, but because of overharvesting, dredging and pollution, they became functionally extinct there.
"It used to be known for its oysters," Pete Malinowski, a founder and the director of the Billion Oyster Project, said. "At one time, half of the world's oysters were harvested in the New York Harbor."
Without oysters, New York Harbor's ecosystem lacks a crucial element. Each adult oyster can filter dozens of gallons of water each day, and an oyster bed can reduce the force of waves on wetlands, protecting the coast from erosion. An oyster bed is also an important habitat for species of fish that live in the small spaces between the oysters, McLaughlin said. "Think of them as a condominium."
Previous attempts to restore the population have been too small, McLaughlin said. With thousands more oysters in this installation project, there is a higher likelihood that oyster larvae will latch on to shells and grow into adults.
The team's strategy for reintroducing oysters consists of many moving parts. McLaughlin said he anticipated that during spawning season next summer, the oysters in the cages would begin to reproduce and that the resulting fertilized eggs would float in the water for two to three weeks.
"Then it's a one-way trip down," McLaughlin said. With the changing tides, the oysters likely will float through the bay and attach themselves to parent oysters or to shells in one of four beds on the sea floor, where they will be able to grow.
This is where the project takes an unexpected twist: The four shell beds are made not only of clam and oyster shells but also of tiny pieces of porcelain that have been recycled from nearly 5,000 toilets from New York City's public schools.
Since 2013, the department has been installing environmentally efficient toilets in schools as part of a citywide effort to conserve water. Before this oyster restoration project, the department was simply disposing of the old toilets, said Ben Huff, the water demand management program manager for the department. McLaughlin suggested that the city use the leftover porcelain for the oyster beds because porcelain has been shown to be just as effective as shells for oyster growth.
On Thursday morning, staff members from the department and the Billion Oyster Project unloaded hundreds of bags of oysters from a truck onto the beach at Bayswater Point State Park in Queens. The bivalves, which were of the Island Creek variety of the eastern oyster species, had been shipped from Duxbury, Mass., the day before.
One by one, the oysters were moved to black plastic baskets, which each held five gallons of oysters and were stored underwater in floating metal cages.
Once all 85 cages were loaded and tied to one another along a 500-foot rope, the team pulled them to the site near the airport.
With the foggy Manhattan skyline in the distance and planes flying overhead, the scientists worked with team members on a larger vessel to attach the cages to four 400-pound anchors. On the small boat, Malinowski and three scientists pulled at the rope, attaching it to the final anchor.
"Nice work," said Malinowski, 33, his hands beginning to bleed slightly. "That's it. Piece of cake, right?"
For two years, the department will assess the water quality in the area and monitor the oyster beds for traces of spat — oyster larvae that have attached to a shell and hardened.
"And that's a home run," McLaughlin said.
The team also hopes to gather information for future oyster restoration, Malinowski said.
"We have a long way to go," he said. "This is just scratching the surface."