On New York’s Governor’s Island, an unprecedented program has an ambitious goal: to restore once-bountiful oysters and the environmental benefits they bring to New York Harbor. What’s more, the foot soldiers of this environmental movement are an unlikely group–high school students at a remarkable public school that teaches stewardship of the waterways alongside math and English. TAKE BACK THE HARBOR highlights the stories and work of these extraordinary students and their inspiring teachers as they persevere to turn the tide on decades of neglect and bring back the health of New York City waterways.
Directed by Emmy winner Kristi Jacobson (“Solitary”, “A Place At The Table”,) and Oscar and Emmy winner Roger Ross Williams (“Life Animated,” “Music By Prudence,”) and produced by Jacobson and the team at Motto Pictures including Christopher Clements, Julie Goldman, and Carolyn Hepburn, TAKE BACK THE HARBOR premieres Tuesday December 18 at 8pm ET/PT on Discovery.
“In 2002, we decided to start this school. There’s an art school in New York, there’s finance, there’s sports schools, there’s every kind of public school, but there’s not a school about New York Harbor,” explains Murray Fisher, the creator of the New York Harbor School and Billion Oyster Project. He along with Pete Malinowski started Billion Oyster Project with the hope to restore oyster reefs to New York Harbor through public education initiatives. Oysters are good for the harbor because they filter gallons and gallons of pollutants. Billion Oysters Project’s long-term goal is to restore one billion oysters to the New York Harbor by 2035. “Planting a billion oysters in New York Harbor does seem so big and so impossible,” says Fisher. “But we wanted to build a movement.”
The film captures the students, teachers and Billion Oyster team as they build reefs, monitor growth and perform marine bio research over the course of a year. During that time there are discoveries, victories and setbacks, and our cameras are there to capture it all. As the students – go to Fishers Island, get their hands dirty, grow oysters, conduct diving expeditions and learn to operate boats – we see just how difficult it is to build a movement intent on saving New York’s Harbor. We also see the dedication of these students, as they face the setbacks – for example they can only dive in the water if it has not rained for three consecutive days, because the water becomes polluted from combined sewage overflow, and the organization itself faces bureaucratic and red tape obstacles that require them to file for a permit that is thousands of pages long, in order to install the largest reef in New York City, with 50,000 oysters, in Jamaica Bay. As Katie Mosher puts it: “As a restoration community, we have to scale up. If we don’t scale up, we are not going to accomplish our goals and restore oysters to New York Harbor.”
As Jesse, Gino, Tyiara and others work towards their high school graduation, the film reveals they are also building the movement. As Harbor School student Nicholas explains, “To me, the only way to have hope in restoring the harbor and really the planet as a whole is to make hope. Nothing is going to happen unless someone does it. And that someone else might as well be me.”