Charlestown resident Andrew Jay recalls reading in history books about a time in the distant past when the streets of downtown Boston were covered in oyster shells; when boats going up or down the Mystic River past Charlestown had to navigate around gigantic oyster reefs; and, before the Charles River dam, when oysters the size of a shoe were routine in the Back Bay area.
Jay, who helps run the Charlestown-based Mass Oyster Project, has been working for the last seven years to try to convince the state that returning oysters back to the harbor and its tributaries for water purification could be the next step forward in cleaning up the waterways. When the Wynn Everett casino project came to town and partnered with his organization two years ago, he thought the time had finally come.
Of course, one of the most disappointing and unheralded rejections in the environmental permitting stage for Jay and other oyster supporters was the fact that the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries rejected the oyster idea proposed by Wynn under concerns that folks would illicitly harvest the oysters and that it would take too many oysters to make a difference in water quality.
Jay said the rejection hasn’t stopped his efforts, and he said there is plenty of reason to be optimistic due to ongoing similar projects in New York City harbor and in Baltimore’s Chesapeake Bay areas.
“We are and continue to think it’s a good idea and a good location,” said Jay. “We have found the Wynn folks to be a good partner. Just by their interest in doing this, it’s helped elevate the oyster cause in Boston…They are the first real estate development we know of that would include an oyster restoration component as part of their development. We see it as being a model for community development anywhere in the world…There are accounts of the Mystic oyster reefs being so large that ships had to steer around them. We have heard of oysters one-foot long in the Charles River…There used to be billions of oysters in Boston Harbor. The streets of Boston used to be paved with oyster shells. We have forgotten all about that in Boston. Ultimately, the tide will turn entirely towards what we’re trying to do.”
Talking to regulators, though, one may not think so.
Earlier this year, a spokesperson for the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) – which comes under the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs – said their regulations don’t permit such things.
“The level of oysters needed for this kind of restoration, in addition to concerns of increased public health risk due to citizens collecting the planted oysters, we discourage this kind of project,” said the spokesperson in February, who is no longer with the agency. “This is not the first attempt by either private or government entities.”
This week, the DMF affirmed to the Patriot-Bridge that their views have not changed, referring all inquiries to long-time state shellfish expert Jeff Kennedy.
Kennedy did not return a phone call from the newspaper in time for publication.
In New York City Harbor, more than 50 organizations partnered to bring oyster purification projects to Jamaica Bay, the Hudson River and other locales in New York Harbor some five years ago.
Dr. Dennis Suszkowski of the Hudson River Foundation said they have found mixed, but encouraging, results.
First and foremost, he said they, too, have run into critics. For example, the partnership is barred from operating in any capacity in New Jersey waters – as regulators there take the same tack as those in Massachusetts.
That said, he stressed his organization has focused strictly on the science of the situation in a way that does not advocate for or against the idea. They simply want to implement oyster restoration projects for water purification to study what happens in an urban harbor like New York City.
“We have had mixed results and we’re learning, but it’s been promising,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll see thousands of acres of oyster beds in our harbor anytime soon, but we’re pretty serious about targeting areas here for more projects in the next 20 years. There’s still quite a lot of enthusiasm here for these projects.”
Suszkowski said they have put down beds in certain areas that have washed away or died unexpectedly, and that’s part of the learning process. However, he also points to successes at the mouth of the Bronx River, in Jamaica Bay and up by the Tappan Zee Bridge on the Hudson River. However, historically speaking, the largest beds were on the New Jersey side of the harbor, and they are barred from working there.
Public perception, he said, has helped elevate their projects and interjected small oyster projects in other state projects.
“There is a project for a series of offshore breakwaters on Staten Island with a lot of oyster planting projects contained within the project,” he said. “The oyster component for that project has made it very popular with the locals who have ties to the shellfishing industry.”
Other projects in Chesapeake Bay in Maryland have also shown promise, and could also be an impetus for Massachusetts shellfish regulators to cautiously put its toes in the water of change for the purpose of studying the idea of restoration and purification.
A Wynn spokesman said this week that if state regulators changed their viewpoint in the future, Wynn would be more than happy to take another look at the proposed project near their site.
It’s news like that that frustrates Jay and his compatriots in the Mass Oyster Project, saying that Boston and Massachusetts are really behind the times in this cutting-edge idea.
“Since the 1920s, all regulations around oysters were passed with the idea of only making them safe for public consumption,” he said. “It was like that for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with milk – keeping it safe for public consumption. It’s the same for oysters. We’ve come in now and said, ‘Hey, oysters help clean the water. Let’s look at how this could help us and put them in dirty water to clean it. It’s like we were speaking Japanese to them. That idea never factored into their thinking on our project. You have people in DMF for 30 years focused on ‘must keep food safe,’ and that’s what they focused on here.”
Jay said that security in the Harbor is so tight these days that no one could pull up a boat to the site just off the casino property and pull up all the reefs that were proposed to be put there. He said whether it was harbor security or cameras focused in from the casino, anyone trying to harvest the oysters would be caught.
DMF thinks differently.
Jay hopes that he and others can build a coalition as in New York to help DMF think “outside the box” and begin to allow small purification projects like at Wynn.
“The impetus is on us now,” Jay said. “We want to start building a coalition of many members to get on board with this, maybe even bring an educational or school component into it as they did in New York. This is a chance to bring what they’ve done in other places to Boston. So, at this point we are looking to take political action and get legislation to allow them to think more outside the box. The harbor clean up was great and we’ve come a long way, but there’s no need to stop now and this could really be a next step forward in that process.”