Long before the ubiquity of the utility slice, the dirty water dog, and New York-style bagels, the oyster was the undisputed sovereign of New York City. Overharvesting and pollution long ago killed off the massive oyster industry of New York, but the lower Hudson estuary was once home to 350 square miles of oyster bed after oyster bed. Some biologists have even gone as far as attesting that New York Harbor once contained half of the the world's oysters.
In an effort to reclaim that history and restore the ecosystem of Jamaica Bay—a body of water located to the south of Long Island, not far from JFK Airport—the city of New York is littering the bay with broken toilets.
The idea is to bring oysters back to the area—for a couple of reasons. First, oysters are a supremely native species to many of New York City's waterways, and they're largely gone today. Second, oysters are what is known as "ecosystem engineers," meaning they filter water, thereby limiting erosion and greatly improving water quality. Plus, oysters provide a suitable habitat for other species. Therefore, the City of New York has joined with a nonprofit called Billion Oyster Project and, together, they are trying to repopulate the 31-square-mile bay and adjoining wetlands with 50,000 oysters.
But oysters and oyster seeds need a place to hang out—so the conservationists working on this project had the brilliant idea to use old, inefficient toilets and repurpose them as oyster beds. New York City has a surplus of toilets thanks to a water conservation program that mandated the use of new, water-efficient toilets.
Now, some lucky oyster seeds will be hanging out in so-called "receiving beds" made out of broken up toilets mixed with clam and oyster shells. The project will be creating one large donor bed and four receiving beds, a system that—the conservationists hope—will encourage the oysters to live and reproduce. The notion is that the adult oysters will make babies and the babies will find a place to latch onto in the toilet-based receiving beds.
One day, Jamaica Bay may once again have a self-sustaining oyster population. And if that day comes, we'll know that a bunch of decrepit, disused toilets played an essential part in restoring NYC oysters to their rightful place.