American Food Hero 2019: Pete Malinowski
Who he is: Executive Director, The Billion Oyster Project
What he's doing: Restoring healthy waterways
A century ago, nearly half of the world's oysters came from New York Harbor. They were a staple in the city—vendors sold them from rolling carts long before they hawked hot dogs or pretzels. But greed (in the early 1900s, more than a billion oysters a year were pulled from the water) and rampant pollution put an end to that. The consequences were both epicurean and environmental.
Oysters had been an essential part of the estuary's ecosystem. They're famous for their ability to filter water, extracting nitrogen—a pollutant that largely comes from fertilizer runoff and can lead to marine "dead zones"—and using that nitrogen for food and to build their shells. Just one oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water each day. And the reefs the bivalves create by aggregating together provide habitat for a multitude of underwater species, and help protect the coastline from flooding and erosion by acting as a buffer against waves from strong storms.
Pete Malinowski wants to take us back to the old days. In 2014, he launched the Billion Oyster Project with the goal of restoring the harbor's protective reefs and water quality. "New York City is one of the most vulnerable places in the country because of climate change. Ten million people live here and we're surrounded by water that's right at our doorstep," says Malinowski, who grew up on an oyster farm on Fishers Island, in Long Island Sound. "If we are to continue living on this planet, we have to completely change how we interact with the natural world. We can no longer live separate from nature. Nature is here, and fighting back."
The nonprofit collects oyster shells from local restaurants—about half a million of them a week, most of which would be destined for landfills—and uses them to provide temporary homes for baby oysters in its hatchery. One to two dozen of these spats attach to a single half shell by a sticky "foot," where they mature until they grow shells of their own and can be placed in the harbor. The shells themselves are also used to build reefs in New York Harbor to shelter the young oysters (and the shoreline). With the help of nearly 8,000 students from schools in all five boroughs and over 1,000 adult volunteers, 30 million oysters have been restored to the harbor. To date, more than 1.2 million pounds of shells have been up-cycled and the new oysters have filtered an estimated 19.7 trillion gallons of water, removing literally tons of harmful nitrogen.
For Malinowski, the biggest obstacle to reaching the billion mark, surprisingly, is getting permits to plant the oysters. (Health officials worry that someone will eat one from the still-sullied water and get sick.) But in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when areas of New York suffered severe flooding, public officials are starting to see the wisdom of having oysters back in their waters. "It's about restoring the natural ecosystem, but also about making the harbor part of the culture of New York City again," says Malinowski. "We may never get to where we were 500 years ago. But we're bringing them back."