Hakai Magazine

Oyster restorer Danielle Bissett
Danielle Bissett and her team at the Billion Oyster Project are making oysters homes that mimic natural reefs in New York Harbor. Photo by Agata Poniatowski

Coastal Job: Oyster Bed Restorer

Danielle Bissett works with her team at the Billion Oyster Project to design and build new homes for oysters in New York Harbor.

Authored by

As told to Jessica McKenzie

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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

The humble oyster was a defining feature of a young New York City, but decades of pollution and dredging devastated the once-plentiful oyster beds. As the senior project manager for the Billion Oyster Project, Danielle Bissett works to return oyster reefs to their former glory in New York Harbor.

I’m responsible for getting oysters in the water. Wild oysters will settle on just about anything rigid—tires, plastic water bottles—because New York Harbor is starved of hard surfaces. It has this soft bottom from constant dredging and pollution. After heavy rain, raw sewage just pours into the harbor, and fine, dense sediment sinks to the bottom. To bring oysters back into this recovering habitat, I have to make them homes that mimic natural reefs.

Designing oyster installations is complex because every site is different: water quality, currents, water velocity, the bottom substrate all vary depending on where you are in the harbor. The installations range in size from big steel cages to small mesh bags. We rely on students from the New York Harbor School and our amazing network of volunteers to bring our designs to life. Then we fill the structures with shells collected from local restaurants, which are ideal for baby oysters, or spat, to latch on to.

One of our largest structures is the gabion. It consists of two parts: a rectangular steel frame and steel mesh inserts. The gabion stands about two feet [60 centimeters] high and can weigh up to 300 pounds [136 kilograms]. Another type of installation is the bagged shell reef, which consists of nearly 100 bags of oyster shells that will ideally fuse together into an artificial reef as the oysters grow.

If there’s an existing wild oyster population at the site, we can install structures with or without spat. If we’re trying to introduce a new oyster population, we need to populate the structures with spat first. To do that, we suspend the structures (or a lot of bagged shell) in large tanks at our hatchery on Governors Island with tens of millions of microscopic oyster larvae. We leave them for a few weeks, until the larvae have time to attach themselves to the shells and grow to roughly the size of your pinky nail.

Installation mornings are the most exciting. I don’t even need a cup of coffee. The largest gabions need to be installed by barge and crane. Smaller installations can be done by hand—with a lot of help from volunteers—passing bags of oyster shells along an assembly line and placing them in shallow water. Regular maintenance gets me in the water, too. One day, I was swimming for several hours, replacing a line that held a large modular installation together after a rough winter.

I love working with oysters. Oysters are the heart of it all—they are the ecosystem engineers. And every day they improve the health of the harbor by providing habitat for other species and by filtering the water.

It’s challenging to do this restoration work in urban areas, especially a city like New York, which has a bustling harbor with lots of activity, both commercial and recreational. But that’s also why it’s so exciting and rewarding.