University pairs with NY-NJ Baykeeper to reintroduce local Eastern Oysters

<p>The University’s Center for Urban Sustainability is working with NY-NJ Baykeeper and the U.S. Navy to help reintroduce Eastern Oysters in Raritan Bay.</p>

The University’s Center for Urban Sustainability is working with NY-NJ Baykeeper and the U.S. Navy to help reintroduce Eastern Oysters in Raritan Bay.

No one would know by looking in the waters that eastern oysters once filled Raritan Bay.

The species that settling colonists once described as “dinner plate-sized” traditionally inhabited the East Coast — from New England to the Gulf of Mexico. They served as a staple source of protein until industrial pollution. Disease and over-harvesting all but destroyed the shellfish.

By the ‘20s, Eastern Oysters, a keystone species for the Hudson-Raritan Estuary became ecologically extinct, said Beth Ravit, who helped establish the University’s Center for Urban Environmental Sustainability.

“I don’t know of any native populations in Raritan Bay,” Ravit said. “There are a few wild, isolated populations that scientists have seen, but they’re really small and they’re really scattered.”

But now the NY-NJ Baykeeper and the University’s Center for Urban Environmental Sustainability are working with the U.S. Navy at the Earle Naval Weapons Station in Middletown Township to reintroduce Eastern Oysters to the Raritan Bay, she said.

After testing the waters around Earle, NY-NJ Baykeeper discovered that the oysters thrived in the area and decided to bring the state’s Department of Environmental Protection onboard with the new project, said Meredith Comi, NY-NJ Baykeeper oyster restoration program director.

The group obtained a permit for an 11-acre stretch of water, the largest in the bay, and will place a test group of oysters in a small section of the water, she said.

Ravit said the restoration project attempts to grow oysters in locations where they can survive and reproduce.

Oyster larvae survive by attaching to adult oysters, forming an oyster reef, she said. When the oysters reach a critical mass, the larvae will have reefs to attach themselves, become self-sustaining and will begin to rebuild the region’s natural oyster reefs.

Because the Raritan Bay’s water currents would wash away any natural shell piles the environmentalists would set, workers have to use a physical structure to hold the oysters in place until the adult oysters can reform the reef, she said.

NY-NJ Baykeeper and the center use the Naval Weapons Station Earle to test how well oysters attach to and grow on different structures, Ravit said.

“It’s really like reintroducing an extinct species,” she said.

The project is a win-win for everybody, said Eric Helms, environmental division director at Naval Weapons Station Earle, as the Navy does not need to spend additional money to protect the environment.

In addition to providing water space off their piers, the naval base worked with a tenant to provide NY-NJ Baykeeper with space to set up a new facility to grow baby oysters after Superstorm Sandy damaged the organization’s previous facility, Helms said.

 “From our perspective, nothing bad could come from it,” he said.

Unlike other restoration efforts, the Raritan Bay projects do not try to protect or expand a fishery and instead focus solely on the ecological benefits of reintroducing oysters, Ravit said.

“We know these should not be harvested,” she said. “We know people should not be eating these oysters because of the historic contamination.”

Ravit said finding a safe place for oysters to inhabit was one of the most challenging issues the groups faced.

The Department of Environmental Protection shut down a previous experiment at Keyport Harbor because it feared people would poach the oysters and get sick, costing the state millions in revenue from its seafood industry, Comi said.

While the Department of Environmental Protection’s fear of poaching is real, they do not have evidence that anybody had poached from their program, she said.

Since the department does not have enough manpower to keep out poachers and faces pressure from the Food and Drug Administration, it tries to keep the number of shellfish low.

Comi said NY-NJ Baykeeper had to remove and destroy 30,000 oysters from the Keyport site.

This forced removal occurred after the department closed a site in Redbank, where cities near the waterfront dump raw sewage into storm water sewers during heavy rainfall, contaminating the bay, she said.

“Basically, we were left with nothing in New Jersey,” she said.

The Food and Drug Administration allowed NY-NJ Baykeeper to host its program at Earle because the naval base already patrols as a part of its normal business, Helms said.

The base now sends in a quarterly report documenting regular patrols, which are beyond the normal requirements to protect shellfish, he said.

“It’s a great project, a great idea,” Helms said. “[It’s] something we see as needed.”

Helms said he heard stories that 100 years ago, people could walk across the oysters in the bay and look out over crystal-clear water.

“I think that’s the biggest benefit — water quality in the bay,” he said.

Oysters are ecological engineers, a keystone species that can change the region’s ecosystem, Ravit said.

Ravit said by filtering particles out of the water, oysters enable light to filter lower and promote plant life. Oysters naturally build up in reefs that provide refuge for juvenile fish and protect the shoreline by dampening storm energy and preventing erosion.

“In terms of habitat, they’re terrific,” she said.

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