Meet the River Heads

MURRAY FISHER: THE ECO-ADVOCATE & CO-FOUNDER OF THE BILLION OYSTER PROJECT WANTS YOU ON THE EAST RIVER

Take out a kayak. Bike the Greenway. Order a dozen on the half shell

By EILEEN DASPIN
oyster project logo

Murray Fisher is obsessed with the East River, with the Hudson, with the New York Harbor—and has been since pre-IKEA Red Hook and before biking the Greenway was a thing. After a stint working at the environmental watchdog, Hudson Riverkeeper, Fisher in 2003 co-founded the New York Harbor School to create what he calls “Harbor-literate citizens.”  The technical education public school, located on Governors Island, educates kids on the marine environment and gets them invested in a clean East River. Then he cast his net wider with The Harbor Foundation, a non-profit aiming to engage all New Yorkers in the waterfront revival, and then the delicious-sounding Billion Oyster Project (BOP). Fisher’s goal is not just to get people ordering Blue Points and Wellfleets, but to build a better home for the bivalve. We talked to him about his plan to get it done.

UrbanCoast.nyc: What’s so important about having oysters in the Harbor?
Fisher: New York used to be the oyster capital of the world. It was one of the most bioproductive places on the planet. But by the 1900s, there were none left. We ate them all. They protected the shoreline from storms. They filtered water. They stabilized the sea floor. Now, the ecosystem of the River is degrading. We need oyster reefs to restore it. They play the same role as coral reefs in tropical waters.

UrbanCoast: So, what exactly is the Billion Oyster Project?
Fisher: It started as part of the Harbor School, where kids learned to build and work on reefs. Now the program is in 60 middle schools. Students take care of 90 oyster restoration stations, they plant oysters, monitor their growth and the recruitment of baby larvae. They also look at sediment and water quality and then enter the data on a digital platform. So far, we’ve planted 18 million oysters.

UrbanCoast: Where did the idea come from?
Fisher: I developed it with Pete Malinowski as a way to engage everyone in the city in restoring oysters in the Harbor. I know Pete from the Harbor School, where he taught aquaculture. He grew up on an oyster farm.  

UrbanCoast: How do you get oysters back in the water?
Fisher: You need to build reefs, the more shells you put on the bottom of the river the better. But getting shells is the biggest impediment. They have to be cleaned, dried, transported and stored. There are 500 restaurants in New York that serve oysters and we have 50 partners. That means 90 percent of the oyster shells are being sent to South Carolina. More restaurants want to participate in recycling the shells, but we only have one truck to collect, and two full time drivers.

UrbanCoast: Who was the first restaurant to sign on?
Fisher: Oceana had been doing it for seven years. Chef Ben would set aside the oysters and Pete would pick them up. Now, there is a waiting list.

UrbanCoast: What’s your dream for the East River?
Fisher: Going to the water’s edge to drink and to eat oysters is a trend, but it shouldn’t be the only way to look at it.  Every ten blocks there should be a safe way to get to the East River, a mini-marina where people can kayak, fish or swim. We need a shoreline that includes soft edges that can absorb wave energy, mini wetlands and mini-beaches that provide habitat.

UrbanCoast: What’s required reading on the subject?
Fisher: Heartbeats in the Muck by John Waldman. It’s about the ecosystem of the New York Harbor, going back to the 17th century. It used to be swimming with fish, porpoises and whales. Another one is American Catch by Paul Greenberg. He tries to address the fact that we have more coastline than any other nation in the world, but we import 90% of our fish. He focuses on four species that are natural and abundant and could be a more sustainable fishery. Oysters are one of them.  And I’m re-reading The Hudson, by Bob Boyle. It is the definitive book on the Hudson. It’s incredible. From Native Americans to the mid-1960s. It’s one of the books that made me fall in love with the river.

Want to support BOP? Here are a few of the participating restaurants. See billionoysterproject.org for a full list.

Brooklyn Lighthouse
(East Williamsburg)
45 Borinquen Place
Brooklyn, NY 11211
347-789-7742

Maison Premier
298 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11201
347-335-0446

GrandArmy Bar
336 State Street
Brooklyn, NY 11217
718-422-7867

 

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