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The Essential Podcast, Episode 28: A Billion Oysters — Rewilding New York Harbor

S&P Global

Daily Update: November 24, 2021

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Daily Update: November 19, 2021

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Daily Update: November 18, 2021

At COP26, governments and businesses turned a new leaf on protecting nature to halt climate change

Listen: The Essential Podcast, Episode 28: A Billion Oysters — Rewilding New York Harbor

About this Episode

Peter Malinowski, Executive Director of the Billion Oyster Project, joins the Essential Podcast to talk about climate change, social engagement, and an ambitious plan to restore oyster beds to New York waters.

The Essential Podcast from S&P Global is dedicated to sharing essential intelligence with those working in and affected by financial markets. Host Nathan Hunt focuses on those issues of immediate importance to global financial markets – macroeconomic trends, the credit cycle, climate risk, energy transition, and global trade – in interviews with subject matter experts from around the world.

Listen and subscribe to this podcast on our Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, Deezer, and our podcast page

Show Notes

Nathan Hunt: This is The Essential Podcast from S&P Global. My name is Nathan Hunt. Let us be optimists for a minute. Let us assume that the Paris Climate Accords are successful in their attempt to limit global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius. Let us assume electric cars and carbon capture and a speedy end of fossil fuels- our optimistic scenario only mitigates the effects of global climate change. Sea levels will still rise. Storms will become more frequent and more violent.

Pete Malinowski: We think of oyster reefs as part of an integrated nature-based solution to climate change or to more intense storms. On their own that are going to protect New York City from a storm like Hurricane Sandy, but together  with dune systems and other interventions, you create a solution that can rise with rising water levels, is resilient and can continue to protect the city for as long as it's there.

Nathan Hunt: Would you believe the humble oyster can keep rising seas and storms from pummeling coastal communities? That is the topic I'm hoping to address with my guest today.

Pete Malinowski: Hi, my name is Pete Malinowski and I'm the executive director at Billion Oyster Project.

Nathan Hunt: Pete, thank you for joining me on the podcast.

Pete Malinowski: Thanks so much for having me Nathan.

Nathan Hunt: So, a billion oysters. Why is that a good idea?

Pete Malinowski: You know, we like to think there's lots of reasons why it's a good idea. It's important to note that New York Harbor used to have trillions and trillions of oysters, you know, 200,000 acres of oyster reef in New York Harbor alone, and we ate them all. And so one good reason to restore them is because they used to be there. But those oyster reefs in pre-colonial times, they perform a number of ecosystem services that we want to restore back to the Harbor. So oyster reefs, filter the water, provide food and habitat for hundreds of other animals, they stabilize the bottom and they, as you referenced earlier, can play a role in protecting the shoreline from waves and extreme weather events. Without the oysters the Harbor is kind of like a 200,000-acre forest that's had all of the trees removed. So if the Harbor's without its primary landscape, it's keystone species, it's dominant habitat type. And as a result, the fish and crabs have nowhere to hide and nothing to eat. And there's nothing to hold the sediment in place on the bottom, nothing to protect the shores, and so we're working to restore the oyster reefs to New York Harbor.

Nathan Hunt: Is this like an underwater rewilding project?

Pete Malinowski: Totally. That's a great way to look at it: underwater rewilding. You know, there's not much of New York City that can be rewilded. Whereas the Harbor is the same size as the land area of New York City and has very little competing uses for most of it. So there's an enormous amount of open unused space in New York Harbor.

Nathan Hunt: You had mentioned the role that oysters play in cleaning the water. What kind of contaminants can oysters removed from the water?

Pete Malinowski: Our oysters clean the water in two very different ways. Oysters through their feeding and they're removing suspended solids and nitrogen pollution from the hardware. Nitrogen pollution is the primary pollutant in New York Harbor, and in most urban estuaries, it comes from our treated household wastewater and from farms upstate, they play a role in improving water quality in that way. But the much bigger impact that our wasters have on water quality in New York Harbor is by engaging New Yorkers in the work of restoring oysters to New York Harbor we build awareness and affinity for the resource, and new Yorkers are surprised to learn that every time it rains hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated household wastewater goes out into the Harbor and you know, all the street trash and everything else, and so the more New Yorkers are turned on to the issues facing water quality in the Harbor, the more that they will act to support clean water and prevent pollution from coming from the land, into the water. And that long-term picture is going to be a much more profound impact on water quality than what the oysters can directly do through their feeding.

Nathan Hunt: This is something I find absolutely fascinating about the Billion Oyster Project, which is on the one hand, there are these clear environmental benefits, cleaner water, the stability, the protection from storm surges. And on the other hand, there's this amazing educational component of this, where you're not just taking the hardcore environmentalist community and educating them about the benefits of oysters. You're really trying to create both a broad and a deep understanding about the importance of New York Harbor for the environment of New York City. Can you tell us a little bit about those educational efforts you've made?

Pete Malinowski: You know, we learned pretty early on that if we were to be successful in restoring a billion oysters, we would need everybody. New York city has this incredible talent pool, almost 9 million people living on or near this degraded natural system, so we design our programs to engage New Yorkers from different walks of life. So we have volunteer programs on Governor's Island, we do the shell collection program is a really neat way to engage diners at restaurants and that whole industry, we have education programs at schools, or we develop curricula and do professional development to train teachers, to shift what they're teaching in their math and science classes to focus more on oyster restoration and research in New York Harbor, and we provide those schools with small cages with live oysters in them. We call them oyster research stations that are sort of a remote field lab for the school. And then we worked directly with the New York Harbor school on Governor's Island, which is a career in tech ed 9-2, you know, normal high school where students specialize in marine fields. And all of those kind of varied ways to engage New Yorkers and public school students were fundamentally the highest aspiration, a Billion Oyster Project is to change how New York City interacts with the natural environment here in town. We believe that by engaging New Yorkers in the work of improving New York Harbor, through restoring a billion oysters, we can change the perception of the Harbor. We can elevate the Harbor and the collective consciousness of the city to a place New Yorkers work to preserve, protect, and you know, care about.

Nathan Hunt: Another thing I find really exciting is that I can, as a person who enjoys eating oysters, eat oysters with pride. I can, I can eat them conscientiously by eating them at one of the restaurants that you partner with in order to collect used oyster shells. Tell me a little bit about why you're collecting oyster shells.

Pete Malinowski: Oysters have a lifecycle that's similar to Caterpillar, they have two distinct morphological phases where they're larvae and they swim around for the first few weeks of their lives, and then they attach to a hard substrate, grow their shells and turn into what you and I know as oysters. That transition from their larval period to their juvenile stage, they're very vulnerable at that time and they need a hard substrate. What we did when we removed all of the oyster reefs from New York harbors, is we removed  all that substrate. So there's no, except on the edges, there's no hard structure for those oyster larvae to find. So the shell collection program is a way to get shell back into the Harbor and we use those shells for constructing our reefs. We get the larvae to attach to the shells and then restore them to the Harbor. It's a key ingredient in our restoration process and the only place to get oyster shells really is from restaurants. During normal time, we're able to collect almost 10,000 pounds of shell a week from 80 restaurants. 10,000 pounds of shell is a lot of shell and that without the shell collection program would all be in black plastic bags on dump trucks going to West Virginia to be put in the landfill. So we're very proud to be able to get that out of the waste stream and put it to a good use.

Nathan Hunt: And so why can I always eat oysters with pride and conscientiously?

Pete Malinowski: My understanding is that the biggest impact we all have on the natural environment is through our diet. It's far more carbon emissions from food than from cars, for example. So by changing what you eat, you can have a much bigger, positive impact on the environment than by getting a fuel efficient car. Almost all types of food production have negative impacts on the environment associated with that production of food. Farm shellfish is one of the very few examples where the net impact on the natural world is a positive. 90% of oysters that you see at restaurants are farmed and an oyster farm provides all the same ecosystem services that our oyster reefs do, and they also are providing food. And the only reason that farm exists is because people like you are buying oysters at restaurants. And so by buying oysters, by eating oysters, you are supporting just about the only type of restorative protein production that exists, where you're actually allowing people to make their living by improving the condition of the natural world instead of degrading it.

Nathan Hunt: Pete, I lived in New York during Hurricane Sandy. So I remember the sky lighting up as the power station on the east side of Manhattan blew. And I definitely remember the pond that was East Houston Street. Oysters can't keep sea levels from rising and they can't keep hurricanes from heading with increasing frequency. So what can oysters do about sea level rise?

Pete Malinowski: You know, oyster reefs are not going to keep the storm surge out or wouldn't have prevented Hurricane Sandy from doing the damage that it did. But if you look back in time to when New York Harbor was filled with oyster reefs, what you see is when there are big storm events, the waves don't crash as violently on shore. And so you can look at the sediment record in places like Staten Island and you can see when the oyster reefs were removed, because then every time there's a big storm, there's this big layer of Harbor sediment that comes on to land. A Harbor full of oysters is going to have, if an event like Hurricane Sandy happened again, you'd still get the storm surge and still get the flooding, but you wouldn't get damage caused by waves. So we think of oyster reefs as part of an integrated nature-based solution to climate change or to more intense storms. On their own, they're not going to protect New York City from a storm like Hurricane Sandy, but together with dune systems and other interventions, you create a solution that can rise with rising water levels is resilient and can continue to protect the city for as long as it's there.

Nathan Hunt: Are you personally more drawn to the natural methods of mitigating the effects of sea level rise, like oyster reefs or marshlands or dunes, as opposed to say the Dutch model of just building big sea gates?

Pete Malinowski: Yes. Short answer, yes. But I think in a place like New York City, there has to be a combination of solutions. The scale of the intervention that's necessary to protect New York City from a event like Hurricane Sandy is an enormous, it's much bigger than any other civil works project that's ever happened in the city and so just thinking about that and thinking about the variety of coastline and the diversity of coastline of the 521 miles of coastline in New York City, you know, there's, there has to be different solutions. So it may make sense in some places to have walls that keep the water out and, and others to have nature-based solutions. I think any full solution that doesn't rely heavily on nature-based solutions is going to be short-lived. The advantage of nature-based solutions that they're designed to rise with rising water levels or move with changing coastlines. I think for the long-term success and protection of New York City, there needs to be some reliance on natural solutions.

Nathan Hunt: As a New Yorker, I am naturally most interested in the Billion Oyster Project, and as I've mentioned to you before, have followed your work for a long time. But there are a number of efforts like yours in for example, the Chesapeake Bay in Southern Florida and on the West Coast as well. I'm wondering how much coordination is there between these groups? Do you communicate with these other teams that are also looking to reintroduce oyster habitat?

Pete Malinowski: Yes. There are a number of national and international conferences that exist for, to have those conversations more formally and then there's definitely open dialogue just in New York State alone. We have an organizing body for all the different shell collection programs. So there's definitely a lot of information shared and coordination in that sense between different projects and there are always to restoration projects in most coastal states. There's always an opportunity for more of that. It's hard to pick your head up out of the sand and look around from time to time.

Nathan Hunt: So, where do you get your funding?

Pete Malinowski: Our budget is divided basically in three ways. Not exactly, but pretty close between government grants, the government grants are from the National Science Foundation, the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery, which is directly related to Sandy recovery. Done work for the City, City DEP and the Department of Youth and Community Development. Private foundations, private foundations are sort of all over the map. And then individuals at events, we have donors who support our work and then we have one awesome event a year, when we can have events where we have 50 different oyster farms and 1200 people, live music, it's a fun event that our Billion Oyster party that we haven't been able to have in a little while now, we're looking forward to September and hoping that we can do it then.

Nathan Hunt: When I think about your model, which is a combination of environmental action and local education, it seems like a natural for a social impact bonds that have gotten so popular in England, where it's a public private partnership where the public sector, the government, guarantees the funding for successful projects, but individual investors take the financial risk in funding, certain projects, have you guys looked at all at that kind of funding?

Pete Malinowski: We have not. And I agree that, you know, it solves a key problem and how we raise money, which is that, you know, we're never planning to eat the oysters. You know, that's not an impact investment situation where you can hope to have a return on your investment. You know, without that type of intervention.

Nathan Hunt: Financial markets are increasingly drawn to investment in social impact bonds, green bonds. There are a huge number of organizations doing important work. One of the challenges for the people putting together these bonds is that they can't scale up their efforts. So, I guess my question for you would be could the Billion Oyster Projects scale up if your funding was to say double or triple?

Pete Malinowski: That's the easiest question you've asked so far. Absolutely. You know, we're restoring a billion oysters, or a hundred acres of oyster reef to a system that used to have 220,000 acres. We're working with a hundred public schools in a system that has 1,700 public schools. We train 50 teachers a year and there are 117,000 public school teachers in New York City. So just in New York City alone, there's enormous room for growth in the work that we do. Plus, if you look at how our central thesis is all about the best way to improve outcomes for public school students and for the natural environment is to train students to restore the environment. That's pretty unique in the environmental community, that commitment to public education as a tool for environmental restoration and step something that could be applied anywhere people live on or near a degraded natural system, which is everywhere people live. There's a great potential as we refine our model here in New York City to think also outside of the city and what the implications are for growing this model. The sky's the limit, as far as where we can take this if we had the capital to make that happen.

Nathan Hunt: Pete, thank you for joining me on the podcast today.

Pete Malinowski: A central part of our effort is getting the word out and that's key, and so by showing your interest and by this conversation that we're having right now, is a key step for us in getting the word out. So thank you for helping us restore a billion oysters to New York Harbor.

Nathan Hunt: The Essential Podcast is produced by Molly Mintz with assistance from Kurt Burger and Lundon Lafci. At S&P Global, we accelerate progress in the world by providing intelligence that is essential for companies, governments, and individuals to make decisions with conviction. This is Nathan Hunt from my home studio, high above Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Thank you for listening.


The Essential Podcast is edited and produced by Molly Mintz.