Oysters: Nature’s Water Filters

February 6th, 2011 | Posted by tjones in Water Conservation | Water Quality

One little known fact about New York City is how famous it once was for its shellfish trade; indeed, the harvesting and shelling of oysters was once one of NYC’s primary products.

Before Dutch colonists arrived in the area, shellfish were an integral part of the subsistence economy and culture of the Lenape peoples, who lived on Manhattan Island before being displaced.  According to the Mannahatta Project – a study conducted by researchers at Columbia determining the ecology of Manhattan Island 400 years ago – oysters were consumed in large numbers, and used for cutting tools and clothing ornament; clams were used to craft necklaces that were exchanged as currency throughout the region.  The harbor was also home to blue mussels, lobsters, crabs, and other edible shellfish.

Over the next few centuries following settlement, the health of the waters around Manhattan began to degrade due to industrial pollution, and shellfish were overharvested leading to a massive decline in the populations of shellfish.  This was sort of a cascade effect – because, amazingly, shellfish act as biological filters of chemicals and pollutants.  They draw toxins out of the water and store them in their flesh, cleaning the water like a carbon filter in a water bottle.  When populations began to decline because of water contamination, smaller populations of shellfish meant that the water was cleaned less efficiently, leading to high levels of pollutants: a classic feedback loop.

Oysters are no longer a common part of the New York City economy, or a common part of its marine ecology.  But that doesn’t mean that the future doesn’t have some potential renewal for the purifying shellfish

As Grist reported earlier this week, the Museum of Modern Art is currently exhibiting a program called Rising Currents, “in which several designers presented plans for dealing with the effect of higher sea levels on the biggest city in the United States.”  One of those proposals is to return a healthy shellfish population to the waters of New York harbor, ensuring cleaner water for the ecosystem and for people.  Ideally, the shellfish could even be edible by 2050, assuming other water pollution mitigation efforts were successful.

This plan is not only limited to the art gallery, though.  New York/New Jersey Bay Keeper has actually had a repopulation program in place for a few years.  The New York Harbor School, located on Governor’s Island, has undertaken a program of oyster farming in the harbor.

Although it will many decades before shellfish are able to make the water in the harbor as healthy as it was 400 years ago, it’s certainly a strong step in a good direction – good for the health of the planet, and for people.


While the water in New York harbor is by no means drinkable, that doesn’t mean that tap water can’t be enjoyed.  While those hearty oysters continue their work of repopulating and filtering toxins out of our waterways, we can filter our own water with these green products, ensuring clean water in the home, and less plastic in the landfill.

The GE Carbon Single Stage Filtration System is an under-counter single catridge filtration system from GE, improving the taste and odor of regular tap water by reducing sediment and chlorine.  It fits the cold water faucet of any sink, and can be mounted horizontally or vertically.

The Ovopur Water Purifier uses gravity to dispense water, requiring not electricity to operate.  It is constructed from porcelain, glass, and metal and contains multiple levels of water filtration – including activated carbon, bioceramics, and quartz crystal.  The filer cartridges can be returned to Aquaovo for recycling.

After you’ve filtered your water, you might consider carrying it in the Kor One Water Bottle.  It is a BPA-free plastic bottle that can be recycled by the manufacturer after use to be made into more Kor One bottles.  For each bottle you buy, 1% of the sales go to a charity dealing with water-related issues.  They’re color-coded by issue/charity: blue is for ocean protection; green is for watershed protection; orange is for bottle container recycling, and pink is for the global water crisis.

For more filtrations options visit our water filtration section.  For water bottles, visit our water bottle section.  For other green products, including green building materials, make sure to visit http://greendepot.com

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