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BOP Schools Meets BOP Community Reefs!

By Heather Flanagan
November 7, 2016
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Metal sleeves filled with oysters ready to be placed in the Brooklyn Bridge Park Community Reef, under the water adjacent to the Manhattan Bridge.

At BOP Schools and Citizen Science, we mainly deal in Oyster Restoration Stations (ORS):

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BOP Teacher Fellows Rachelle Travis and Judith Alexander-Edwards’ Oyster Restoration Station at Pier 5 in Brooklyn Bridge Park (covered in sea squirts after a mild winter!).

These multi-part wire mesh cages are not much bigger than a milk crate, but they can contain hundreds of tiny oysters and thousands of other organisms both large and small, from stationary tunicate colonies to 6 inch lined seahorses who’ve just stopped by for a visit.

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Lined sea horse from a Brooklyn Bridge Park ORS.  Photo courtesy of Rachelle Travis.

 The ORS are made by volunteers who come out to Governors Island for a Volunteer Day.  Volunteer Days are over for this season, but make sure to sign up for our mailing list to stay updated on fun opportunities next spring!

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The cured oyster shells that serve as the substrate for growing oyster spat come from our restaurant program.  These shells are bagged by volunteers and turned over to Hatchery Manager Jeremy Esposito and his high school aquaculture students at the New York Harbor School, who manage the process of oyster spawning and spat settling from their lab.  Just the creation of an ORS represents the collaboration of many New Yorkers dedicated to restoring our waterways- and that’s only the beginning!  Once an ORS is built and stocked with oysters, hundreds of students, teachers, and citizen scientists are involved in monitoring dozens of stations at 50 sites around New York Harbor.

An ORS is a highly accessible way for students and citizen scientists to learn about restoration science and connect with their local waterfront, and its value as a STEM learning opportunity for young learners is incalculable.  In terms of ecosystem restoration, the oysters in the ORS are dutifully cleaning their little patch of water and we’ve had exciting anecdotal reports of enhanced biodiversity at some sites- the cages themselves definitely tend to be hubs of sessile organism growth, and it seems like everyone is always encountering little mud crabs!  But can we do more?

Of course we can!  Enter BOP’s Community Reefs.    

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View of a section of the Community Reef at Bush Terminal Pier Park in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

A Community Reef is an Oyster Restoration Station writ large.  It’s a living, breathing, filtering replica of New York City’s natural history that existed for millennia in a harbor that once held half the world’s oysters until overharvesting, dredging, and pollution made them virtually extinct.  By virtue of its size and structure, a reef magnifies the positive ecological impact of an ORS many times over.  By concentrating so many oysters together, the chances of one of millions of free-swimming oyster larvae settling on the reef and growing into an adult oyster instead of being lost in the harbor grows exponentially.

The reefs are composed of large metal structures, onto which metal sleeves filled with oysters are placed.  Here are three of those structures before being put into the harbor at Brooklyn Bridge Park:

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…and here are sleeves containing thousands of oysters:

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Normally my job here at BOP is to write curriculum and document all of the amazing work happening with Schools and Citizen Science, so my oyster interactions are mostly via Oyster Restoration Stations, but I recently had the chance to visit a community reef- and it was awesome!  I headed to the Brooklyn Bridge Park Community Reef under the Manhattan Bridge, where I was joined by BOP-CCERS teacher fellow Rachelle Travis and nine of her students from Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts, who were also visiting for the first time.  The day was lead by BOP’s Reefs Team of Blyss Buitrago (Restoration Engagement Coordinator), Katie Mosher-Smith (Restoration Manager), Juan Pareja (Nursery Technician), and our scientist-in-residence, urban marine ecologist Michael McCann from The Nature Conservancy.  

A typical ORS visit happens on a pier or dock, where a teacher generally stays pretty dry except for some muddy hands or splashes (unless it’s raining out- BOP Schools field expeditions happen rain or shine!), although they might have to put on a personal flotation device (PFD) as a safety precaution while they retrieve the cage.  For a reefs visit, the group is on a beach or actually in the water, so everyone needs to suit up.  The Reefs Team and I would be venturing into the East River, so we had to put on waders:

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The author, Heather Flanagan, at left, with Blyss Buitrago, Restoration Engagement Coordinator on the right.

From left: Juan Pareja, Blyss Buitrago, Heather Flanagan, and Michael McCann.

From center left: Juan Pareja, Blyss Buitrago, Heather Flanagan, and Michael McCann.

Meanwhile, Rachelle and her students put on PFDs:

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Photo courtesy of Rachelle Travis.

When it was time to get down to work, I was excited to see that elements of a reef monitoring trip would be familiar to BOP students.  An ORS field expedition involves five protocols in which students collect data on site conditions, measure oyster growth, identify mobile and sessile organisms, and test water quality.  To start, it became clear that at the reefs, an accurate assessment of site conditions is not just important for collecting data points- it determines whether the work can happen at all.  The visit was a literal rain date, rescheduled because New York City’s waterways during or shortly after a period of rainfall are at high risk for having been contaminated with fecal pathogens via one of 460 Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) outfalls.  (More than 25 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater discharge into New York Harbor this way each year.)  The Reefs Team also had to be extremely mindful of the tides, since water levels that were too high would keep the reef too deep for us to access in waders.  With the rain date’s higher-than-ideal low tide, it meant that we had to wait for awhile in our “mobile office” before we could get into the water:

Blyss, Juan, and Heather in the "mobile office."

Blyss, Juan, and Heather in the “mobile office.”

 Just like BOP students do, Mike and Juan performed water quality testing- although their equipment was a bit fancier than what we use- the Horiba U-52 water quality meter:

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And while students didn’t get into the water themselves to investigate the biodiversity of the oyster reef, they were pros at our big task for the day: measuring oysters!  Working in groups, everyone participated in measuring and counting oysters and recording data:

The students really enjoyed themselves, including two students who were new to the school and to BOP, and everyone was impressed with their performance.  With their ORS not far away at Pier 5 of Brooklyn Bridge Park, Rachelle and I finished the day by retrieving a mesh bag of oysters from the cage to return to her classroom oyster tank, encountering dozens of those ubiquitous mud crabs in the process, another reminder of the habitat and biodiversity created by even a tiny patch of oyster shells.  

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Mud crabs from McKinney’s ORS at Pier 5. Photo courtesy of Rachelle Travis.

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Rachelle’s classroom oyster tank! Photo courtesy of Rachelle Travis.

With the massive collection of shells and live oysters at Brooklyn Bridge Park and Bush Terminal Park, I can’t wait to see what grows and thrives at our reefs, and I’m so excited by all the possibilities for more BOP students to have this special encounter at the waterfront!  Sign up for the BOP newsletter to stay updated on opportunities to experience the wonders of our community reefs.  And if you live, work, or play in the Sunset Park or Brooklyn Bridge Park communities contact us at restore@nyharbor.org for more information on how you can get involved!