GOVERNORS ISLAND, New York (WABC) -- It took less than 100 years for New Yorkers to wipe out the oyster population in the New York Harbor. Now, the Billion Oyster Project is trying to rebuild the oyster population one shell at a time.
The Billion Oyster Project, which has worked since 2014 to rebuild oyster reefs in the waters surrounding New York City.
"When explorers first arrived in New York Harbor, they found a harbor that was full of fish," said Pete Malinowski, Executive Director of Billion Oyster Project. "And the backbone of that ecosystem was the oyster reefs."
Oysters have a remarkable ability to filter nitrogen pollution from water as they eat. A single adult oyster can filter about 50 gallons of water per day. Oyster reefs also provide a habitat for other marine life and help protect New York's shores against storm surge during rough weather.
Restoring oysters and their reefs will - over time - restore the ecosystem's natural mechanisms for maintaining itself, resulting in cleaner water and greater biodiversity.
When New Yorkers harvested all of the oysters from the harbor, they also removed the shells... and didn't put them back.
"This animal that was so important to the cuisine and the economy of New York City for so long, is now working extra to restore the harbor and bring all those animals back," said Malinowski.
The Billion Oyster Project is trying to change that by recycling shells from partnering restaurants and getting them back in the water to build oyster reefs.
"We collect shells from over 70 restaurants in New York City, and in total, we have collected 1.3 million pounds of oyster shells to date," said Charlotte Boesch, Shell Collection Program Manager of Billion Oyster Project.
The goal: To add a billion oysters to the water by 2035. So far, they've restored 28 million newly grown oysters.
On Governors Island, the Billion Oyster Project took Eyewitness News to 1 of 3 major shell collection piles and gave us a tour of their Oyster Hatchery - like an oyster nursery for baby oysters.
"We're conditioning oysters to spawn by increasing the water temperature and giving them lots of algae to eat," said Rebecca Resner, Hatchery Manager of Billion Oyster Project.
The New York Harbor School is the flagship school of the Billion Oyster Project, and students contribute by growing oysters, designing and building oyster reef structures, diving to monitor reefs, and more.
"It's a good feeling to say - I made those babies that you're holding and you're learning and getting a taste of marine biology," said Resner.
Another major contributor to the Billion Oyster Project is their annual Billion Oyster Party fundraiser, where supporters can experience 50 oyster farmers shucking and serving oysters from around the United States and Canada. All the shells collected from the event are used in the restoration project.
For Executive Director Pete Malinowski, the Billion Oyster Project is an idea and a statement that young can be trusted to care for and improve the natural environment where they live. "If we can do that in New York City - one of the busiest ports in the country - then we are creating a model that can exist anywhere."
To volunteer and help restore the oyster population in the New York Harbor, you can find more information on Billion Oyster Project.
For more exciting happenings in and around New York, visit Our Backyard.