||East River Oyster Beds -
Manhattan, Brooklyn, & Queens, NYC
Listed By Borough
Listed By Ecosystem
Bayside Acacia Cemetery
Central Park's North End
East River Oyster Beds
Fresh Creek Marshland
Harlem River Yards
Inwood Marsh & Nature Center
Manhattan Marsh Re-creation
Manhattan Maritime Holly Forest
Northern Manhattan Forests
Operation Renovo Gardens
Time Capsule NYC
West Harlem Marshlands
Oyster and Oyster Reef Restoration in the East River
The purpose of this project is to restore ecosystem health  and enhance ecosystem function in the East River through an adaptive management plan  for oyster (specifically, the eastern oyster-Crassostrea virginica ) and oyster reef restoration. If restoration efforts in the East River are successful, the project should be expanded to encompass other areas in the Hudson River Estuary. This proposal begins by looking at the East River’s background and examines how historical land and water use has contributed to its current ecological problems. The second section discusses the benefits of oyster reef restoration for the East River and examines some of the potential challenges to this project. Finally, the third section outlines the project’s goals and objectives and provides a time line for the first year of the project.
1. Introduction to the East River
1.1. Historical background
The East River is a tidal strait that connects the Upper Bay (mouth of the Hudson River) and the Long Island Sound (D’Elia 2006). It was formed about 11,000 years ago with the melting of the Wisconsin glacier (Greater Astoria Historical Society et al. 2005). Hell Gate marks a division between the upper and lower portions of the strait: the especially turbulent water—in addition to the jagged reefs found in this area—presented a dangerous obstacle for early mariners (Greater Astoria Historical Society et al. 2005). As a part of the Hudson River estuary, the East River’s brackish water is important as habitat for many wildlife species and as a passageway for migratory fish (USACE 2004).
In its primordial state, the East River was lined with mudflats, salt marshes, and other wetlands. Native Americans settled along the East River and depended on its fish stocks and wetland ecosystems for survival (Greater Astoria Historical Society et al. 2005). Excavated shell piles indicate that oysters were an important source of food for the Native Americans (NY/NJ Baykeeper 2005a). Native trees were used to build their longhouses and canoes (Greater Astoria Historical Society et al.2005). Their settlements, fishing camps, and planting fields spanned from the Battery in Manhattan to Castle Hill, Clasons Point, and Throgs Neck in the Bronx. On Long Island, they occupied areas from Bridge Street in Brooklyn, to Maspeth, Pot Cove, and Flushing in Queens (Greater Astoria Historical Society et al. 2005).
The first significant European settlements were established in the 1600’s with the arrival of the Dutch (Greater Astoria Historical Society et al. 2005). They established farmland along the strait (USACE 2004) and harvested salt meadow grass in the fall to feed their cattle during the winter (Greater Astoria Historical Society et al. 2005). A ferry ran between Manhattan and Brooklyn and by 1647, the first East River pier was built at Pearl Street (Greater Astoria Historical society et al. 2005). When England gained possession of New York in the late 1600’s, they encouraged more waterfront development by selling offshore water plots and invested in wharf development (Greater Astoria Historical Society et al. 2005). Like the Native Americans, the colonists regarded oysters as an important food source, especially during wintertime: in 1715, oyster harvest between May and August was prohibited (Waldman 1999).
After the Revolutionary War, the Hudson River Valley quickly became industrialized. During the 1800’s, farmland and forest were converted into residential and industrial areas and freshwater tributaries were filled or converted into sewers (USACE 2004). Randall’s Island and Ward’s Island on the East River were used as garbage dumps, cemeteries, and housing for the poor (USACE). Due to their isolated nature, other islands on the East River became sites for disease quarantine, prisons, and psychiatric wards (Greater Astoria Historical Society et al. 2005). Not only was the strait seen as a repository for society’s social outcasts, it was also a repository for industrial waste (Greater Astoria Society 2005). New York Harbor became a key port for the oil industry; additionally, imported agricultural products were treated and refined on the East River banks. Petroleum spills and industrial waste degraded the estuarine ecosystems (Greater Astoria Historical Society 2005). As New York Harbor became home to one of the world’s busiest seaports, dredging became necessary so that larger vessels could navigate through the estuary (Yozzo et al. 2004). Unsurprisingly, New York Harbor’s oyster industry quickly declined throughout the 1800’s (Waldman 1999) and was closed in the 1920’s (NY/NJ Baykeeper 2005a).
Today, land along the East River consists of commercial, industrial, and residential areas. Over the past 40 years, maritime activity has declined. The East River waterfront along Lower Manhattan had more than 40 piers during the 1950’s; at this time, fewer than 10 piers remain (DCP 2006). Four power plants and six sewer treatment plants are located along the East River. Water from the East River is used as cooling water at the power plants. Although the capacity for wastewater treatment has improved significantly, combined sewage overflow is still a problem (USACE 2004). These various anthropogenic activities along and in the East River (as well as other parts of the Hudson River Estuary) have caused great consequences for its ecosystem.
1.2. Current conditions and status
Temperature estuaries, like the East River, suffer from a range of ecological problems including increased sedimentation and turbidity, greater episodes of hypoxia or anoxia, loss of sea grasses and dominant suspension feeders, a general loss of oyster reef habitat, shifts from ecosystems dominated by benthic primary production to those dominated by planktonic primary production, and fish kills (Jackson et al. 2001). Excess nutrients such as nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) reach the East River through agricultural runoff and wastewater. Increased nutrient loading leads to an increase in the rate of primary production and is the cause of many of the problems listed above (Kirby et al. 2005); these changes lead to shifts in community assemblages and ecosystem function. In a study conducted in the Hudson River Park’s sanctuary waters, Bain et al. (2006) found great species richness and noted that the Harbor contained essentially all the fish species that would be found in a healthy mesohaline shoreline community; however, the ecosystem was dominated by fish species atypical for such habitat. Species such as windowpane, killifishes, and silversides, were found in very low numbers; instead, the ecosystem was dominated by fish more typical of open coastal and estuary waters including bay anchovy, blueback herring, Atlantic herring, and striped bass (Bain et al. 2006). The authors hypothesize that the Hudson River Park is deficient of the shallow and structured habitat common to estuary shorelines because most of the shoreline has been bulkheaded, which might have caused changes to the relative abundance of fish species (Bain et al. 2005). Because the East River has undergone similar shoreline development, it is likely to have the same problem.
Since the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, the water quality in New York Harbor has improved (D’Elia 2006) . Lower East River, which is considered as a part of the Inner Harbor area by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP 2004), displays decreasing levels of fecal coliform and enterococci (see Appendix A), increasing levels of dissolved oxygen, and relatively stable levels of chlorophyll ‘a,’ which is used to gauge phytoplankton abundance and secchi transparency, which is used to estimate clarity. The decline in fecal coliform levels has been attributed to the reduction of combined sewage overflows, the termination of dumping raw sewage into the water, and the elimination of illegal discharges into the water (NYCDEP 2004). Upper East River, which is considered together with Western Long Island Sound, displays similar trends but has lower dissolved oxygen levels than the Lower East River (NYCDEP 2004). New York City is making an attempt to further improve water quality.
2. Oyster and Oyster Reef Restoration
Oysters used to be an ecologically important and prolific part of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary ecosystem. Eastern oysters could be found from the southern limits of the Estuary up to Ossining, New York in the north. As mentioned in the historical background, they were an important source of food for the Native Americans and colonists. At the end of the nineteenth century, oyster beds still occupied about 350 square miles of the Estuary (Waldman 1999). Since then, oyster populations have plummeted to insignificant numbers (Yozzo et al. 2004) and although small populations can be found in parts of the estuary, they are unlikely to reach their historic levels without human intervention. Considering the recent improvement in the East River’s water quality, oyster reef restoration can be beneficial for the ecosystem. This project would be in line with the goals of many local, state, and federal programs (see Appendix B). NY/NJ Baykeeper has already attempted to restore oyster habitats in Liberty Flats in the Upper Bay, Keyport Harbor in the Raritan Bay, and Oyster Point in the Navesink River (NY/NJ Baykeeper 2005b).
2.1 Benefits for the East River (and Hudson River Estuary) ecosystem
Oysters are considered to be “ecosystem engineers” because of the multiple functions they perform to shape their environment (Brumbaugh et al. 2006). These functions are important and beneficial to the East River’s ecosystem:
Restoring oyster reefs to the East River introduces topographic heterogeneity to the habitat. Theoretically, greater topographic heterogeneity should lead to a greater diversity of niche spaces, which would increase biodiversity (Larkin et al. 2006). The living shell matrix created by oysters provides structural heterogeneity and vertical relief; the reefs can be used as nursery and feeding grounds (Harding and Mann 2006) and the interstitial spaces between the oyster shells serve as valuable refuge space (Harding et al. 1999). Over 300 species have been identified as either directly or indirectly dependent on intertidal oyster reefs (Tolley et al. 2005). These species include recreational and commercial fish (Harding and Mann. 2006) such as striped bass (Morone saxatilis), bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix), weakfish (Cynoscion regalis), and spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus). In a study examining the effect of reef restoration on macrofaunal assemblages, Rodney et al. (2006) found that the density of macrofauna on restored oyster reefs were a magnitude higher than the density in plots without restoration.
The decline of oyster populations in the Hudson River Estuary has been attributed to a number of factors including pollution, overharvesting, and disease. In addition to these threats, restored oysters face basic ecosphysiological constraints and threats that are unique to the East River ecosystem. Each threat must be considered carefully before developing an effective restoration plan.
3. Project proposal for oyster and oyster reef restoration in the East River
Oyster restoration in the East River has the potential to increase ecosystem health and function. Though there are challenges to oyster restoration, they can be addressed by adaptive management. This project emphasizes the importance of continual monitoring and assessment. Also, community involvement and inter-organizational collaboration (see Appendix B) are essential to the project’s success. The time required for oyster populations to reach a point of self-sustainability and restored ecosystem function is unclear. Based on studies of wetland restoration and marine protected areas, the project will require a minimum of 10 years with varying degrees of restoration efforts along the way.
3.1 Short-term (1-5 years) goals
The short-term goal for this oyster restoration project is to establish 3-4 oyster restoration sites in the East River through inter-organizational collaboration and community involvement. Short-term objectives are to assess the habitat quality of various sites in the East River and to select sites for restoration based on these assessments, to establish inter-organizational partnerships, to create a shellfish donation/recycling program, and to create a network of volunteers for monitoring oyster gardening and oyster reef planting in at least 3-4 sites in the East River. Below is the time line for the project’s activities during the first year. During the next our years, similar activities will take place, but adjustments will be made based on accumulated data. A budget for the first year of the project is provided in Appendix C.
3.2 Long-term (5-10+ years) goals
The long-term goals of this project are to restore a self-sustaining population of Eastern oysters in the East River and to restore ecosystem health and function to the strait.
Oyster restoration in the East River would lead to numerous benefits for the local ecosystems. Public involvement in this project will also benefit the City’s vision for the Hudson River Estuary in the long-term. By working together, authorities, non-profit organizations and individual citizens can create a healthier environment.
Allen Jr., S. K., P. M. Gaffney, and J. W. Ewart. 1993. Genetic Improvement of the Eastern Oyster for Growth and Disease Resistance in the Northeast in N. R. A. Center. Dartmouth, Massachusetts.
Bain, M.B., M.S. Meixler, and G.E. Eckerlin. 2006. Biological status of sanctuary waters of the Hudson River Park in New York. Final project report for the Hudson River Park Trust. Hudson Park Trust, New York.
Brumbaugh, R. D., M. W. Beck, L. D. Coen, L. Craig, and P. Hicks 2006. A Practictioners' Guide to the Design and Monitoring of Shellfish Restoration Projects: An Ecosystem Services Approach. The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, VA.
Chu, F. and R.C. Hale. Relationship between pollution and susceptibility to infectious disease in the eastern oyster. Marine Environmental Research: 243-256.
Costanza, R. 1992. Toward an operational definition of ecosystem health. In Ecosystem health: New goals for environmental management, ed. R. Costanza, B.G. Norton, and B.D. Haskell, 239-256. Washington D.C.: Island Press.
D’Elia, M.L. 2006. Water quality and ecology of the East River. Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, NY. Available from http://www.waterwire.net/News/fullstory.cfm?ContID=1911 (accessed October 2006).
DCP (Department of City Planning). 2006. Transforming the East River waterfront. DCP, New York.
Greater Astoria Historical Society, Baard, E., T. Jackson, and R. Melnic. Images of America: The East River. Arcadia Publishing, Great Britain.
Greening, H. and A. Janicki. 2006. Toward reversal of eutrophic conditions in subtropical estuary: water quality and sea grass response to nitrogen loading reductions in Tampa Bay, Florida, USA.
Harding, J.M. and R. Mann. 1999. Fish species richness in relation to restored oyster reefs, Piankatank River, Virginia. Bulletin of Marine Science 65:289-300.
Harding, J. and R. Mann. Estimates of Naked Goby, Striped ass, and Eastern Oyster larval production around a restored Chesapeake Bay Oyster Reef. Bulletin of Marine Science 66:29-45.
Jackson, J.B., M.X. Kirby, W.H. Berger, K.A. Bjorndal, L.W. Botsford, B.J. Bourque, R.H. Bradbury, R. Cooke, J. Erlandson, J.A. Estes, T. Hughes, S. Kidwell, C. Lange, H.S. Lenihan, J.M. Pandolfi, C.H. Peterson, R.S. Steneck, M.J. Tegner, and R.R. Warner. Historical overfishing and the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems. Science 293:629-638.
Larkin, D., G.V. Smith, and J.B. Zedler. 2006. Topographic heterogeneity theory and ecological restoration. In Foundations of restoration ecology, ed. D.A. Falk, M.A. Palmer, and J.B. Zedler, 142-164. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
Maschinski, J. 2006. Implications of population dynamic and metapopulation theory for restoration.
Naeem, S. 2006. Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in restored ecosystems. In Foundations of restoration ecology, ed. D.A. Falk, M.A. Palmer, and J.B. Zedler, 210-237. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
NY/NJ Baykeeper. 2005a. NY/NJ Baykeeper oyster restoration rationale and strategic plan for the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. Raritan Baykeeper, Keyport, NJ.
NY/NJ Baykeeper. 2005b. NY/NJ Baykeeper 2005 Oyster program report. Raritan Baykeeper, Keyport, NJ.
NYSDEC (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation). 2006. Rules and regulations: 6 NYCRR Part 41-sanitary condition of shellfish lands. NYSDEC, Albany, New York. Available from http://www.dec.state.ny.us/website/regs/part41.html (accessed November 2006).
Thom, R.M., G. Williams, A. Borde, J. Southard, S. Sargeant, D. Woodruff, J.C. Laufle, and S. Glasoe. 2005. Adaptively addressing uncertainty in estuarine and near coastal restoration projects. Journal of Coastal Research 40:94-108.
Tolley, S.G., A.K. Volety, and M.Savarese. 2005. Influence of salinity on the habitat use of oyster reefs in three Southwest Florida estuaries. Journal of Shellfish Research 24:127-137.
USACE (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). 2004. Hudson-Raritan Estuary Environmental Restoration Feasibility Study: Harlem River/East River/Western Long Island Sound study area report. USACE, NY.
Waldman, J. 1999. Heartbeats in the Muck. The Lyons Press, NY.
Yozzo, D., P. Wilber, and R.J. Will. 2004. Beneficial use of dredged material for habitat creation, enhancement, and restoration in New York-New Jersey Harbor. Journal of Environmental Management 73:39-52.
Appendix A: Trends in New York Harbor Water Quality (all graphs are from NYCDEP 2004)
Appendix B: Summary of local, state, and federal projects
Appendix C: First year estimated budget
 Ecosystem health is defined as an ecological system that is “stable and sustainable…it is active and maintains its organization, and autonomy over time and is resilient to stress (Costanza 1992).”
 Adaptive management bases decisions on accumulated knowledge and is useful for cases where action is needed but significant uncertainty exists (Thom et al. 2005).
 Eastern oysters are the most significant native species to the east coast.
 The Hudson River Park is the part of Manhattan’s western waterfront extending from the Battery to 59th street (Bain et al. 2006).
 Almost all of the East River shoreline has been filled, hardened, or straightened (USACE 2004).
 The Inner Harbor area includes the Hudson River from the New York City-Westchester line, through the Battery to the Verrazano Narrows; the Lower East River to the Battery; and the Kill Van Kull-Arthur Kill system (NYCDEP 2004).
 The Upper East River-Western Long Island Sound area includes the northeastern part of NY Harbor from Hell Gate up into the Western Long Island Sound (NYCDEP 2004).
 A line is defined as a lineage of individuals in a closed breeding population (Allen, Jr. et al. 1993).
 Appendix B provides a list of potential collaborators and summarizes the benefits to both projects.