As storms get bigger, oyster reefs can help protect shorelines

Living shoreline oyster castle, Money Island, Delaware Bay

EMILY MATCHAR / SMITHSONIAN.COM – Two hundred years ago, the streets of lower Manhattan were lined with “oyster cellars,” rough-and-ready establishments hawking all-your-can-eat oysters for six cents. In those days, the floor of New York Harbor was covered in oyster reefs, making the bivalve a cheap and plentiful snack for the underclass of the rapidly growing city.

Flash forward to the early 21st century, and pollution and overharvesting have all but killed off New York oysters. Then, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy hits. The storm surge floods lower Manhattan, submerging the streets once home to the oyster cellars, causing $65 billion in damage.

But if the waters surrounding Manhattan had still been thick with oysters, the damage might not have been so severe. And if we bring them back, experts say, we might better protect our coastlines from future storms, which are likely to be worse because of climate change. These experts are calling for a rebuilding of oyster reefs in coastal areas around the country. And people – private property owners, businesses, the military – are listening.

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