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One Billion Oysters, One Million People, One Mission: Pete Malinowski Talks Billion Oyster Project

The world can be saved one oyster reef at a time, according to Pete Malinowski, the executive director of the Billion Oyster Project. 

“Connections [to nature] are the key to saving the world,” Malinowski said. “If we want to protect and preserve the natural world, we have to find ways to form authentic connections with nature for as many people as possible.”

Malinowski, who spoke in Boston College’s Rewilding Planet Earth lecture series on Tuesday, said he aims to repopulate New York Harbor with oyster reefs and educate future generations about their connection to the environment through the Billion Oyster Project.

Growing up on an oyster farm on Fishers Island, NY, Malinowski said he was exposed to nature from a young age, helping develop his sense of stewardship of nature.

“I loved learning on the oyster farm,” Malinowski said. “When I take the boat from Connecticut to Fishers Island to go home and look out at Fishers Island Sound, I feel like that’s mine, like I have a piece of ownership over that common space.”

According to Malinowski, this sense of ownership over the natural land is what drives the Billion Oyster Project. The main focus of the project is to repopulate New York Harbor with one billion oysters by the year 2035. 

“How can you restore habitat in the harbor and use that process as a way to reconnect New Yorkers to the natural space around them?” Malinowski said. “Our goal is to engage one million people in restoring one billion oysters by 2035.”

According to Malinowski, one billion oysters are necessary for a thriving, independent oyster population. Malinowski said with an estimated 10 million people living in New York City by 2035, he wants one in 10 New Yorkers to get involved with the movement.

“[We want to] put enough oysters in the water so that we could step away, and the population would continue to increase,” Malinowski said. 

A significant part of the project—next to rewilding the oyster population—is educating students about ways to help the environment, Malinowski said.

Malinowski started the Billion Oyster Project when he worked at Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, a career and technical education public high school located in Governors Island, NY, as an aquaculture teacher. After finishing their first year at the school, students can specialize in one of seven marine fields. 

“New York Harbor School students do a lot of the heavy lifting of restoring oysters to the harbor,” Malinowski said. “In addition to Harbor School, one of the reasons we started Billion Oyster Project was to broadcast that [interactive] style of teaching and learning to as many schools as possible.”

Alongside local schools, local restaurants across Brooklyn and Manhattan became involved with the project, Malinowski said. Through its shell collection program, Malinowski said the Billion Oyster Project collects oyster shells from over 50 restaurants around New York City. The project uses the collected shells to create new reefs. 

“The only place to get oyster shells is from restaurants—the oyster market is dominated by the half-shell market,” Malinowski said. “We collect between four and eight thousand pounds of [shells] a week.”

David Arcesi, MCAS ’22, said Malinowski’s mission to create a sustainable ecosystem for oysters in New York Harbor inspired him. David said he lives on a coast and recognizes the importance of the Billion Oyster Project’s mission to restore oyster reefs. 

“It’s something that me and my family have kinda been doing indirectly for a few years,” Arcesi said. “We all really love oysters. When we have them at home, we throw them back in the water because we know how important it is for their sustainability that their shells get back in [the water].”

Arcesi also highlighted the role education plays in the Billion Oyster Project.

“If we didn’t know about it, we wouldn’t have been throwing our oysters back into the ocean,” Arcesi said. “It’s just one of those things you don’t think about if you don’t have that knowledge that [Malinowski] has given out.”

Malinowski closed by emphasizing the natural beauty of New York Harbor and what that means to him as well as the Billion Oyster Project.

“If everyone in New York City knew New York Harbor like I know New York Harbor, all this [pollution] would stop immediately,” Malinowski said. “We all have a responsibility to care for it.”

Correction (3/17/22, 12:48 p.m.): This article was updated to reflect that Malinowski was a teacher at Urban Assembly New York Harbor School when he c0-founded the project, not a student as the article originally stated.

Featured Image by Chris Ticas / Heights Staff

March 5, 2022