New York Harbor

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New York: Your Oyster/New York Harbor
Museum of the City of New York
Written By Museum of the City of New York

The Museum of the City of New York celebrates and interprets the city, educating the public about its distinctive character, especially its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation.

When Henry Hudson sailed into New York Harbor in the 1600s, he probably had no idea about the natural abundance growing underwater -- nearly 350 square feet of oyster reefs. At that time, the harbor was home to approximately half of the world's oyster population. Some were even said to grow as big as one foot long and the size of a dinner plate!

The local Lenape Indians had been enjoying oysters for generations, and soon New Yorkers followed suit. Oyster fishing was big business, and purveyors all over the city clamored for more product to meet the growing demands of their customers. The oyster became the city’s signature delicacy, a seemingly endless resource devoured by the millions of new arrivals who poured in during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

But even New York’s tremendous oyster population could withstand only so much human development. By 1820, the oyster beds in Staten Island were no longer productive. By 1927, after decades of intensive harvesting and increasing pollution, the city government finally declared harbor oysters unsafe to eat. Since that time, oysters have remained virtually extinct in most of the rivers, bays, and marshes surrounding the city.

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For thousands of years, oysters were the keystone species at the foundation of New York’s estuarine ecosystem. Massive shellfish beds in the harbor’s brackish waters stabilized the vulnerable shoreline against erosion, created habitats for other species, and of course, provided an abundant food source for generations of New Yorkers. Today, there are efforts to repopulate the harbor with a billion new oysters by 2030 to clean the water, support marine biodiversity, and strengthen the shore.

Cover photo by chadrick via Instagram

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