On a recent summer morning, marine biologist Ray Grizzle reached into the waters of the Bronx River estuary and pulled up an oyster. The 2-year-old female was "good and healthy."
He grabbed another handful and found more good news. "This is a really dynamic area: live oysters, reproducing!" the University of New Hampshire scientist said.
Grizzle held up a glistening mollusk while standing waist-deep in the murky estuary littered with old tires, bottles, shopping carts and rank debris.
Marine scientists like him, planners and government officials say millions of mollusks planted in waters off New York and other cities could go a long way toward cleaning up America's polluted urban environment. The oyster and other shellfish can slurp up toxins and eliminate decades of dirt.
Landscape architect Kate Orff has a name for the work she does as part of the Oyster Restoration Research Project: Oyster-tecture. Orff is designing a park and a living reef for the mouth of Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal, where oysters could take hold and filter one of the nation's most polluted waterways.
"My new hero is the oyster, with its biological power," Orff says.
Oyster-tecture is a 21st-century approach to creating waterfront landscapes by regenerating long-gone shellfish. Construction has begun on a new pier area that is to host Orff's reef. In her Manhattan office, she holds up a tangle of fuzzy black ropes that will be attached to the Brooklyn pier and filled with shellfish, which need to latch onto something to survive -- whether a rock, dead shell or synthetic object.
The Oyster Restoration Research Project, a New York-based nonprofit, partners with the NY/NJ Baykeeper ecology advocate working at the Bronx site, and the Army Corps of Engineers that built an oyster reef on Governors Island off Manhattan.
"Having oysters improves the whole aquatic habitat, attracting fish and other marine life to the area," says Dennis Suszkowski, the science director of the nonprofit Hudson River Foundation.
Funding for the projects comes from private and government sources. A 1-acre bed with up to 1 million oysters costs at least $50,000 to plant and manage.