In preparation for our exciting, upcoming movie event, Executive Director Linda Hunter chatted with Emily V. Driscoll, the director of Shellshocked: Saving Oysters to Save Ourselves. Shellshocked is a riveting documentary detailing the demise of oyster reefs in New York harbor, and the current movement to revive their decreased populations.
What inspired you to make the movie, Shellshocked?
Sludge, toxic waste and living oysters is what I remember reading. It didn’t seem possible or right. It was 2007 and I was reading about Katie Mosher Smith’s efforts to put living oysters into Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal–a toxic superfund site that was once an oyster paradise with bivalves the size of babies! Oysters filter water and create habitat for up to 300 species. The hope was to raise awareness about oyster restoration and make some improvement in the water quality. The oysters in the Gowanus weren’t making a huge difference, but they were surviving (barely). This project and other New York oyster restoration projects began as grassroots organizations and volunteers and steadily grew.
A couple of years later the movement had the backing of 28 organizations like the Hudson River Foundation and The Harbor School. Individuals continued restoring oysters to the Harbor, using their own expertise. Artist Mara Haseltine created living sculptures that doubled as oyster habitat and sparked discussion about the bivalves and cleaning up our waters. After learning of the collaboration and efforts, I wanted to make a film to show how scientists, government officials, environmentalists, artists and high school students were working together and using their own resources and ingenuity to bring back oysters to help restore New York Harbor.
How did you gain access to the amazing historical photos featured in the film?
Before I delved too deep into the oyster restoration research, I needed to understand the history of New York oysters. Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster was a wealth of information and I dug through boxes of photos at The NY Public Library and NY Historical Society. I contacted historical societies up and down the East Coast and scoured the Library of Congress and Museum of the City of New York archives. The images captured the oysters’ role in New York’s history, economy, ecology and culture at the time. Oysters were sold on street corners, the way hot dogs are today. Crushed oyster shells were used in building. Within a few decades, they were gone–pollution, overfishing, dredging and diseases had wiped out this species, which was synonymous with New York. They were quickly forgotten and New Yorkers’ connection with the Harbor virtually disappeared as the water became more toxic. Bluegrass band Bob Wright and Harbortown helped me tell the story of New York oysters with their songs about the old New York oyster industry and its demise.
How is the film contributing to the growing community of people interested in native oyster restoration?
After finishing the film I decided to distribute the film myself–a “grassroots distribution”–and set up screenings that could spark discussions about oyster restoration where the screenings were taking place. The screenings often include sustainably farmed local oysters and a Q&A with environmentalists, farmers and scientists who are working to bring back oysters. Since 2012, ShellShocked has been shown in restaurants, museums, theaters, aquariums, libraries and universities in the US, Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia. I had no idea there were so many oyster restoration projects when I began making the film! It’s been wonderful to learn about the wealth of projects and find so many people working–often as volunteers–to bring back the beloved bivalve. I’m thrilled the film can help bring together like- minded people to discuss the health of our estuaries, oceans and planet. That is why I wanted to make it!
Can oyster reefs play a role in mitigating the effects of climate change, such as the devastating tide surge in Lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy?
Now oyster reefs are being considered as a “soft infrastructure” option to act as a buffer against storm surges, like the one that occurred in superstorm Sandy. Oysters reefs won’t block a 14-foot storm surge, but they can diminish wave energy. Oyster restoration on a large scale is needed to build up oysters to a critical mass where they can reproduce and build reefs on their own, meanwhile protecting our shorelines.
Can you share a story that didn’t make it to the final cut but that is still a compelling piece for you personally?
If I had more time in the film, I would have included information about oysters and archaeology–learning that some oyster middens (heap of shells) are tens of thousands of years old and reveal information about cultures living at that time.
Join us for a viewing of the film next Thursday at the Bridge ArtSpace in Richmond. We’ll serve oysters, beer, and popcorn!
Click here for more details and to purchase tickets.