The Other DEC Project in Our Backyard

The permit for the New NY Bridge (the new Tappan Zee Bridge) issued by the DEC contains a three-part compensatory mitigation plan. The most well known part of this plan, the Wetlands Enhancement at Piermont Marsh, has been highly publicized. However, in comparison, very little has been made public about another part of this plan actively happening in our area. The plan in the permit originally called for local oysters to be harvested and transferred to a marine hatchery while creating thirteen acres of new oyster habitat that is to be seeded with the stock from the harvested oysters. By mid 2013, 200,000 oysters were harvested using dredges and moved to adjacent beds where they are to be kept out of the way of the construction equipment that is currently in place.

The discovery in 2013 of oyster beds in the Tappan Zee during survey work for the New NY Bridge project does not come as a surprise. We know from oyster shell heaps, more widely known as middens, that the oyster was a staple of the local Native American diet. The oldest Atlantic shell midden found to date is located right across the river from Palisades in Dobbs Ferry. It dates back to 6950 B.C. and is the earliest remaining evidence of humans living in the Hudson Valley. When the Half Moon arrived in 1609 and landed on what is today Staten Island, the Lenape who greeted Hudson and his crew with their first taste of oysters from the new world were from what is today the area of Yonkers. At this time oysters over twelve inches in diameter were not uncommon for the area and even larger shells have been found at the bottom of local middens. By 1860 New York was consuming and exporting twelve million local oysters annually.

Around 1909 a growing population, waterfront industry and the link of typhoid contamination from raw sewage cast a shadow over the local industry. Local oyster beds continued moving further east to the Great South Bay on Long Island. The incident that was the final straw to break the camels back ironically occurred only a few miles down river from where it all started. In 1924 an outbreak of typhoid was traced to a stream in the newly formed Palisades Interstate Park. A New York Times editorial on July 25th, 1924 citing the Palisades typhoid outbreak, started a campaign that focused a spotlight on the condition of the Hudson River and the quantity of sewage being discharged into it. Only 3 years later in 1927 the last operating oyster bed in the area was closed due to pollution, signaling the end of local oyster production.

Surprisingly to most people, the oyster we all know is the same animal from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada — Crassotrea virginicus. Conditions such as water temperature, currents and salinity are what give each oyster their unique characteristics. Many of the oysters today start from the same seed that is harvested further south and then re-deposited in locations such as Wellfleet, Narragansett Sound and Long Island’s Great South Bay, where it is left three to five years to emerge from the water as a true product of its environment.

The Hudson River tidal estuary is a spectacular example, a fjord with tidal influence as far north as the city of Troy. The first 60 miles of the river from the Battery to around the city of Beacon can remain salty enough to support oysters. This salt line will vary depending on tides, rainfall and seasons. However numerous middens found in and around the town of Peekskill show us that oysters have historically thrived as far as thirty miles upriver. The conditions in our immediate area are ideal to support a viable oyster population and any attempt to preserve or restore the local oyster population can be welcomed.