The group has so far restored about 30 million oysters in local waters. But that is still a small part of what thrives in the area.

"Without the oyster reefs, the entire coastline has fundamentally changed," said Pete Malinowski, Executive Director of CNN Business, Rachel Crane. "We believe that oyster reefs can be part of an integrated approach to resilience and proactive planning for climate change."

Malinowski said his team sees promising signals. Last year there was a "dramatic" increase in the number of wild oysters that stuck to the reefs of Billion Oyster Projects.

"For a successful restoration, you need the recruitment of wild oysters from the system", Malinowski said. It could help the population to grow exponentially.

As the name of the group implies, it hopes one day to bring a billion oysters back to the waterways of New York.

How it works

Billion Oyster Project works with more than 70 restaurants in New York City. The companies save their oyster shells instead of throwing them, and a collection partner for the Billion Oyster Project rounds them off and transports them to Governors Island, a small island east of the Statue of Liberty.

The shells are then left outside for at least a year. This allows the elements to naturally deplete organic matter before being sent to New York Harbor School, a maritime public high school on Governors Island that is closely involved in the project.

Students grow and breed baby oysters that are then attached to the cleaned shells. The shells and larvae are grouped and strategically placed somewhere off the New York coastline.

Billion Oyster Project has up to now set up twelve reefs, some close to the coast, and others in deeper waters.

Involving the community – especially young students – throughout the process is a top priority. The group works with more than 75 public schools across all five parts of New York City and students make field trips to reef sites or research stations to learn how they can measure water quality and monitor the growth of oysters.

"Our work with schools and communities brings people to the limit and begins to restore the relationship that New Yorkers used to have with the ecosystem," said Malinowski.

The Billion Oyster Project is funded by various subsidies from state and city support. The National Science Foundation has also recently renewed support for the project, with a $ 4.5 million grant for two years.

The big oyster

Hundreds of years ago, New York Harbor teemed with more than 200,000 hectares of living oyster reefs. The molluscs have cleaned and filtered the water, removing pollutants naturally. Dolphins, seals and other creatures, attracted to the lively ecosystem, swam right off the coast of Manhattan.

"When Europeans arrived in New York Harbor for the first time, there were oyster reefs everywhere and there were so many fish that they could not physically get out of the way of the boats," said Malinowski. "In about 100 years we had harvested all the native oysters in the harbor. All those oysters were eaten, consumed locally by New Yorkers, and shipped all over the world as food."

Oysters were a favorite treat to the towering population of New York City in the 19th century. Street vendors and restaurants began to amaze the cheap, salty seafood.

By the 1900s New York Harbor was polluted and practically lifeless. It was not until 1972, when the Clean Water Act was approved, that the law prohibited the dumping of waste or untreated sewage into the port.

Only recently has the water become clean enough to support shellfish such as mussels, oysters and clams.

Storm flood

Water purity is not the only reason why New York waters suffered without oysters. For centuries their great reefs served as natural breakwaters – underwater barriers that protect the country from storm surge and erosive waves – around the New York coastline.

Those reefs had long since disappeared by the time that Hurricane Sandy raged through the state in 2012 and experts have suggested that the lack of oyster reefs and other natural barriers aggravated the damage.

The work of the Billion Oyster Project could slowly rebuild the breakwaters. But "the oyster reefs that protected New York City before they were removed … took hundreds of years to grow to the size they needed to protect the coast," Malinowski said.

Instead of waiting for a mature oyster reef to reduce the relief of the storm surge, the Billion Oyster project is working with another group, Living Breakwaters, to create artificial reefs two miles off the coast of Staten Island. Oysters can then build reefs around the structures, making them bigger and firmer.

The Living Breakwaters initiative, which starts construction this year, is partially funded with a $ 60 million disaster recovery grant awarded by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2013.

Kate Orff, who created Scape, the design agency that runs the project, said that it's past time for New Yorkers to take serious steps to combat the effects of climate change, which is expected to lead to ever-changing weather and higher sea levels. .

"We have to look drastically at landscape strategies," she said.

What is the future for BOP

Billion Oyster Project is not the first initiative of its kind.

The Oyster Recovery Partnership was launched in 1994 to help restore oyster populations off the coast of Virginia and Maryland.

A large part of the oyster population has been restored there. And the group encourages other places to take similar measures.

Malinowski, the director of the Billion Oyster Project, said he hopes that more initiatives will come when people realize the crucial role oysters play in keeping oceans healthy.

But there is still a long way to go before the oyster supplies near New York are somewhere near pre-industrialization levels.

The progress of the project is "exciting and it validates in a big way – but it is also sobering because there is still a long way to go," he said.

Malinowski said that he was encouraged by the participation of local primary school students. He said he hopes that the work will inspire younger generations to consider environmental and ecological issues, regardless of what they do.

"People in New York will become increasingly aware of the reason [New York Harbor is] it is polluted because it is polluted with human waste, it is full of waste and plastic, "he said. You can imagine that one afternoon you were walking to Central Park on a Saturday and the gates had closed because it was full of human waste and rubbish. "

"New Yorkers would not stand for that and it would stop."