Paul Greenberg, writing for The New York Times op-ed, explains how oysters could have protected the New York harbor from the devastating storm surge caused by Hurricane (tropical storm) Sandy:
Until European colonists arrived, oysters took advantage of the spectacular estuarine algae blooms that resulted from all these nutrients and built themselves a kingdom. Generation after generation of oyster larvae rooted themselves on layers of mature oyster shells for more than 7,000 years until enormous underwater reefs were built up around nearly every shore of greater New York.
Just as corals protect tropical islands, these oyster beds created undulation and contour on the harbor bottom that broke up wave action before it could pound the shore with its full force. Beds closer to shore clarified the water through their assiduous filtration (a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day); this allowed marsh grasses to grow, which in turn held the shores together with their extensive root structure.
But 400 years of poor behavior on the part of humans have ruined all that. As Mark Kurlansky details in his fine book The Big Oyster, during their first 300 years on these shores colonists nearly ate the wild creatures out of existence. We mined the natural beds throughout the waterways of greater New York and burned them down for lime or crushed them up for road beds.
Did you know the expression “The world is your oyster” derives from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor?