W-E Digest, Harbor School
Written by Eliza Loehr

On a nondescript gray New York day I found myself in the middle of the harbor on a boat full of teenagers.

Rocking along, grabbing the gunnels as water taxis wake threatened to flip our small motorboat, we made our way to the underwater classroom.

“It’s mostly just beer cans and sludge down there, but once we found a gun!”

Photo Credit: Eliza Loehr, Oyster Toadfish in a Jar
Oyster Toadfish in a Jar, Photo Credit: Eliza Loehr

I looked out, marveling at the new view of New York that this marine adventure had given me, and was caught off guard when Katelyn, one of said teenagers, popped out of the water and handed me a jar. Before I tell you what lurked inside the jar, let me describe the jar itself.

SHEFFIELD DAIRY was written in bold letters across the thick sturdy glass.

The Sheffield Dairy Farm started in the late 1800s in Mahwah, New Jersey when L.B. Halsey began selling his mother-in-law’s famous butter. The Sheffield herd had been specially bred for centuries to produce superior milk, and as one may expect, the superior milk made exquisite butter.

If in your mental realm of ‘dairy products’ you generously allow a space for the infamous Kraft ‘cheese product’, then you won't be shocked by the future of this small dairy farm.  As the American food story tends to go, Mrs. Sheffield’s Dairy Farm, thanks to the purchase of the first pasteurizing machine in the country, eventually became Sheffield Farms Co., which would become the largest dairy products company in the world by 1926. Through a series of acquisitions Sheffield Farms Co. was bought by the National Dairy Products Corporation which eventually turned into Kraftco and eventually Kraft, America’s beloved shockingly orange ‘cheese product’.

Now let’s take a closer look at that jar. Inside of this century old milk jar lived an Oyster Toadfish, which you may know by one of its other endearing nicknames like ‘the ugly toad’, ‘oyster cracker’ or ‘bar dog’. These oyster toadfish, Katelyn informed me, ‘ruin everything’.

Photo Credit: Eliza Loehr, Issue 01, loehr.harbor-school
Photo Credit: Eliza Loehr

Katelyn and her classmates have come to this underwater classroom with a mission.

They are installing an underwater camera and water quality sensor to monitor their oysters, or more specifically, their ‘oyster apartments’, palette like cages filled with infant oysters. They will filter through the layer of black muck, push aside the cans and occasional guns and set up their underwater data gathering, oyster protecting, anchor deterring camera. The oyster toadfish are just the right size to slide into these cages and eat the poor innocent oysters, decimating the population and more importantly, pissing off Katelyn.

The oysters have been disappearing, she explained, but not just because of the toadfish, the whole cages are gone. So they’re installing a camera to figure out why.

“We think the boats come here, drop their anchor right on our oysters, and drag them off when they leave.”

And this is a big problem, because the goal is to plant one billion oysters in the New York Harbor by 2035.

Why? You might ask. Well, one billion oysters can filter the standing volume of the harbor once every three days, according to one of the Billion Oyster Project founders Pete Malinowski. The New York harbor’s floor used to be completely covered with oysters, he explained. Pearl Street gets its name from the massive heaps of shells that Gothamites would discard.

In the 19th century, six cents bought you all the oysters you could eat, so given the damage any New Yorker can do to an all you can eat buffet, one can quickly imagine the size of these heaps. But although there once seemed to be a never ending supply of oysters that grew up to a foot in length, that wasn’t enough to satisfy this very hungry city. By the early 1800s New Yorkers had eaten nearly all of the billions of naturally grown oysters, so they started importing early-stage oysters from Chesapeake Bay. While on land oysters were topped with mignonette and lemon, in the harbor they were getting topped with a healthy dose of raw sewage.

Who ever would have thought that eating a live animal raised on raw sewage might not be the best thing to eat apparently wasn’t paying attention.

Once rapidly rising levels of typhoid and cholera were finally connected with oyster consumption, New Yorkers turned their backs on the bivalves. No one seemed to care when the canals were dredged taking along with them New York’s largest and most effective natural filtration system. Until now that is...

Photo Credit: Eliza Loehr
Photo Credit: Eliza Loehr

In 2003  Murray Fisher started the Harbor School, a public New York City high school located on Governor’s Island focused on none other than this elusive and all-powerful ostraide. Pete Malinowski joined soon afterwards to teach-in, and eventually head, the aquaculture program.

These students here with me on the boat are the scientists and SCUBA divers and oyster farmers that fuel the movement to clean up our harbor. The Billion Oyster Project is a largely student-staffed program. The students at the Harbor School spend half their day taking normal high school classes and being normal high school students doing normal high school things, but the other half of the day they spend SCUBA diving, planting oyster reefs, driving boats and working to restore New York’s Harbor.

While high schoolers restore the health and biodiversity of our harbor, other New Yorkers are busy working away to get back exquisite butter and restore the quality of our dairy herds. While some may have lost hope in New York's waters as a food source, these kids beg to differ.

Eliza Loehr

Eliza is a food writer, radio reporter and chef based out of Brooklyn, NY. She focuses on the intersections of food, education and technology.