Murray Fisher is founder of the New York Harbor School and the Billion Oyster Project, which has planted 16.5 million oysters in NY Harbor with the help of over one hundred partners and thousands of kids. Fisher will share his stories and the science of oysters on April 21st from 7:00 to 9:00 PM at The Hop bar/restaurant, 554 Main Street, Beacon, NY, to launch Beacon Institute’s new Science Café Series. More information at this link.
John Cronin: I was raised a city kid and have never warmed up to the idea that city kids must be removed to the woods to learn why they should care about the environment. Sometimes I think it can have the opposite effect. Does the Billion Oyster Project have the answer?
Murray Fisher: One of the failures of the modern environmental movement has been its inability to engage meaningfully the huge numbers of people - mostly young and non-white - who live in our biggest cities. After a dozen years of experience, the folks at the New York Harbor School created the Billion Oyster Project (BOP), which provides students in public schools - numbering 1.1million kids - the tools and curriculum necessary to participate in the restoration of New York Harbor. Oysters disappeared from the Harbor and lower Hudson due to over-harvesting and pollution. One billion oysters, successfully restored to NY Harbor by our project, its students and teachers, will filter the polluted waters of the Harbor every three days. BOP has already engaged over 50 schools and is adding a new school every week.
What have they tapped into? One of the most vexing problems facing public school teachers and administrators is the ‘engagement’ problem: Kids don't care. Too often environmental education programming is geared toward minimizing kids negative impact on the planet - recycling, water usage, electricity usage - which is important but not necessarily inspirational. A project, however, that allows you to participate in maximizing your positive impact on the planet can be transformational. Young people in New York City are leading an effort to re-wild the waters that surround them. They can actually picture a Harbor that is once again swimmable, ringed by massive oyster reefs and teaming with hundreds of species of fish and dozens of species of marine mammals. For most of them, New York Harbor will be the closest thing to wilderness that they will experience locally, so it is in their best interest to make it as accessible, bountiful, beautiful and abundant as possible.
Cronin: These seem like principles that can apply anywhere. What do you think is possible beyond New York City, for example, working with teachers and students up the Hudson Valley?
Fisher: The essential thing we have learned through the creation of the Harbor School and Billion Oyster Project is that an education system devoid of teaching and learning about, and in the context of, the local ecosystem is broken; and that an ecosystem that doesn't have youth who are passionate about protecting and restoring it is BROKEN too. Currently, many of our urban centers - often located along vastly important and historically rich marine ecosystems - have both dysfunctional education systems and dysfunctional ecosystems. Our goal is to reunite ecology and education to make them both highly functional again. To break down the barrier that considers these two things apart from each other rather than dependent upon each other. This is, of course, largely aspirational, but it is also totally necessary if we actually want to save the planet. And I think the Hudson Valley and its river towns could be the ideal place to develop and test a model of "Ecosystem Restoration Learning".
Cronin: OK, let your ambitions fly. Where do you see the Billion Oyster Project five and ten years from now?
Fisher: In five to ten years, we would like BOP to have expanded throughout the entire Hudson-Raritan Estuary bioregion. Ideally, we would:
- Be collecting shells from restaurants that serve oysters throughout New York City, Westchester and Putnam Counties in New York, Fairfield County in Connecticut and the seven counties of northern New Jersey that border the Hudson-Raritan estuary
- Have created meaningful partnerships, programs and curriculum for several hundred public schools for NYC, NY State, New Jersey and Connecticut
- Have constructed at least 20 acres of oyster reefs
- Have identified long-term sources of funding to sustain oyster restoration and education throughout the region
- Have developed a K-12 Harbor literacy curriculum
- Have developed an education framework for ecosystem restoration that could go beyond oysters and New York Harbor and could be applied anywhere you have disengaged students and degraded ecosystems (the entire planet.)