More Than a Canoe Club

The Gowanus Dredgers champion stewardship with oyster conservation

By Francesca Krempa | Dec. 12, 2019
Jean-Dominique Bonnet of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club leads a group to inspect an oyster reef in the Gowanus Canal on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2019. By hosting monthly checkups, the Dredgers spark interaction and promote stewardship of one of the country’s most contaminated waterways. (Francesca Krempa/NYCity News Service).

Since 1999, the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club has served as a beacon of conservation and stewardship for the Gowanus Canal – one of the most contaminated waterways in the country. The club is best known for its free canoeing and kayaking expeditions through the canal and other urban waterways.

But now, the Dredgers are trying something new to attract people to the Gowanus shorelines: oyster conservation.

Last year, the Dredgers introduced a colony of about 30 mollusks to the canal as part of the Billion Oyster Project—a plan to bring one billion oysters to New York Harbor by 2035 to improve local water quality. Through reef and nursery installations, the Billion Oyster Project intends to restore the 220,000 acres of natural oyster habitat that once sustained the city’s waterways. It also partners with independent ecologists, schools and organizations like the Dredgers to track and monitor smaller, individual colonies scattered in waterways around the five boroughs.

Why oysters? The bivalves play an important role in the ecosystem and assist in filtering pollutants from New York City’s rivers, bays and estuaries and with time can aid in cleaning something as desperate as the Gowanus Canal—a federal Superfund site since March 2010.

Monthly Checkups for the Oysters

Jean-Dominique Bonnet, a water or wastewater engineer and an ambassador for the Billion Oyster Project, leads a handful of fellow Dredgers and other interested individuals on monthly research sessions across from the group’s boathouse on Second Street. Clad in long, rubber gloves and a blue life vest, he retrieves a small, metal crate crowded with oysters to show the group.  He then collects data on shape, size and mortality rates to send back to the Billion Oyster Project.

At first glance, the oysters don’t look anything like oysters—they resemble a cluster of rocks covered in an unappealing, muddy sediment. But, as Bonnet picks through the clumps and rinses them off, they start to look more and more like actual mollusks. As he goes along, he’ll point out notable details, like holes made from predators and shell lengths, to the group and answer their questions.

“We’ve had a lot of interest and people are engaged, asking questions like ‘Oh, what are you doing? Are you part of the Billion Oyster Project?’” Bonnet said. He leverages each opportunity to teach “more about life in the Gowanus” and prove that it’s “not an off-limits area (and) that they can feel is part of their community.”

Community Along with Conservation

That’s the real goal of the Gowanus oyster colony. While it’s true oysters can help in water filtration and habitat diversity, the canal would need a full-fledged reef of more than 100,000 oysters to see notable results—something it’s not sanctioned for, given its current level of contamination and ongoing remediation efforts. Instead, the Dredgers hope that the oysters will be another means of attracting people to the waterfront and sparking quicker remediation. 

“The idea is to do a lot more than just canoeing. Something that would foster stewardship and awareness,” said Owen Foote, an urban planner and architect who helped organize the Dredgers 20 years ago. The group now has about 90 official members, mainly from Brooklyn. “We think that by utilizing the waterway, by investing in the community, it would help ensure that it actually gets cleaned up,” Foote said. 

The Past as a Vision for the Future 

Restoring the oysters also revives a part of the canal’s nearly forgotten history the Dredgers aim to preserve. Their boathouse, a small, industrial space under a luxury apartment building facing the canal, is cluttered with homages and relics from pre-industrialized Gowanus, way before mill runoff and chemical waste took over the waterway. One poster, a vintage map of the original natural inlet, indicates that during the 17th century, oysters as large as dinner plates were regularly harvested from the historic Gowanus Creek. While today’s oysters are strictly for scientific research and not for consumption, bringing back the bivalves is a sentimental nod to the past.

“Back when this was still a marshy tidal area, oysters were one of the prime exports for the Dutch living in what was then known as New Amsterdam,” said Kelsey Butterworth, an advertising operations manager who serves as the club’s official ‘Guardian of the Gowanus.’ “That is one of the biggest fun facts we love to lob at people.”

The Dredgers don’t intend to stop their monthly mollusk inspections any time soon. They do intend, however, to continue celebrating the canal and dispelling the many misconceptions.

“We all rally around this single cause of wanting a safe, clean and accessible waterway for all of New York to enjoy,” said Butterworth. “I think people are turned off by the canal in its present form because it is very polluted and we’ve got a long way to go, but the Dredgers are so good at showing people what the future of the canal could be. And I’m very fortunate to be a part of that.”

Each month, Bonnet inspects the oysters to check their vitality and record relevant data, such as size, shape, and mortality rates, to send back to the Billion Oyster Project. (Francesca Krempa/NYCity News Service). 
After inspection, Bonnet lowers the oyster crate back into the Gowanus Canal. Even though the canal has been on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list since 2010, water quality in the canal is still bleak. (Francesca Krempa/NYCity News Service).