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What’s Going On with Oysters in New Jersey?

By Heather Flanagan
November 7, 2016
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BOP-CCERS Teacher Fellow Shaina Simpson of Rose E. Scala (P.S. 71) in the Bronx with wild New Jersey oysters from a Delaware Bay reef.

Oysters are functionally extinct in New York Harbor (although at Billion Oyster Project, we’re slowly changing that!).  But less than 150 miles south of our headquarters on Governors Island, New Jersey has a thriving oyster fishery in Delaware Bay, thanks to a partnership between the NJ DEP, researchers at the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory (HSRL) at Rutgers, and commercial oystermen.  At this month’s BOP-CCERS Colloquium, Rutgers scientists David Bushek, Lisa Calvo, and Jenny Paterno discussed how New Jersey manages this sustainable fishery while participating in oyster restoration and education, despite serious challenges.

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The Haskin Shellfish Research Lab is located in a town called “Bivalve” (really!), next to a town called “Shellpile” (also true!).  

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Map of Bivalve and the Delaware Bay from the Bayshore Center, a maritime history museum in a restored oyster shipping shed, including New Jersey’s official Tall Ship, the AJ Meerwald.  The AJ Meerwald, a restored oyster dredging schooner launched in 1928, is now a floating classroom.  For a similar experience in New York, schools can visit the South Street Seaport Museum and its 1885 schooner Pioneer (which was built in Pennsylvania and originally used in the Delaware Bay to carry sand to an iron foundry before becoming a floating classroom in NYC).

The names recall the area’s history as a center of oystering and related economies.  Much like New York Harbor, Delaware Bay is an estuary which had ideal conditions for supporting oyster reefs that had likely existed for thousands of years prior to the arrival of European colonizers.  Dr. Bushek shared this Swedish map from 1654, which contains numerous carefully marked reef locations (circled in blue).  Oyster reefs are marked on many historical maps of America from the 17th and 18th centuries (including the Ratzer map of New York City from 1766), demonstrating their importance as a commercial product as well as their potential as a navigation hazard.

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Map of “New Sweden” courtesy of Dr. Bushek.  Oyster reefs are circled in blue and north is to the right.  Cape May appears at the bottom left corner.

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, New Jersey’s oyster fishery brought in millions of bushels a year, and supported an intermodal shipping operation in Bivalve that linked oyster fleets to rail, truck, and trolley.  In 1904, the Central Railroad of New Jersey built a complex of 30 oyster shipping sheds on the waterfront, and oyster packing companies moved in, staffed by an almost exclusively African-American workforce.  These workers ranged from oyster shuckers to schooner crew and captains- the Bayshore Center, which operates the Delaware Bay Museum and Folklife Center in restored shipping sheds, has an excellent oral history exhibit, “The Abundant Oyster,” about their experiences (you can read excerpts of the transcripts via the exhibit link).  (For studying oysters from a historical perspective, they’ve got a rich online collection of images and objects that have definite relevance to a NYC classroom.)

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Photos courtesy of David Bushek.

This booming industry existed alongside state regulations designed to protect the fishery and  prevent overfishing, which have existed in New Jersey since 1719.  From the 1800s to 1996, the State managed a system in which the Delaware Bay was divided into public natural seed beds in the Upper Bay and private leased grounds in the Lower Bay.  On the slide below, “10 ppt” and “28 ppt” refer to the range in salinity found across the bay, measured in parts per thousand.  Oyster reefs naturally existed in the lower salinity areas marked “seed beds” on the map, which were state-owned and controlled.  The higher salinity of the Lower Bay produces larger, faster-growing, better flavored oysters- but much of this area was considered “unproductive bottom” by the state since it didn’t have pre-existing oyster reefs, so both New Jersey and Delaware leased such areas to oystermen who wanted to cultivate oysters there.  Traditionally, each spring oystermen would use tongs or dredges to move oysters from the seed beds to private leased grounds, where they would grow out to market size for fall and winter harvest.  

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Slide courtesy of David Bushek.

Originally, harvesting was limited by time, consisting of a “Bay Season” of 2-10 weeks.  Oystermen could collect unlimited oysters of all sizes, and this resulted in the incidental catch of huge numbers of small oysters that hadn’t yet reach market size, threatening the stability of future harvests.  In the pictures below from the Bayshore Center (PDF), you can see the traditional process of oyster cultivation and transportation, including a step in which the oysters were loaded into “floats” closer to the processing site in Bivalve.  Time spent in the less saline waters plumped the oysters up, allowed them to purge grit, and made them more attractive after the process of dredging.

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Process for transporting oysters from the Bayshore Center.

A North American typhoid fever outbreak in 1924 put floating to a halt, as untreated domestic sewage closer to urban estuaries was linked to shellfish-associated typhoid outbreaks.  This resulted in the creation of a federal National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP), “which scientifically addressed the special public health risks associated with the production, harvesting, processing, distribution and consumption of bivalve shellfish.”  The NSSP requires that states monitor water quality for pollutants and human pathogens, patrol shellfish growing areas, especially uncertified or “closed” beds, and certify and inspect shellfish plants and labs.  The shellfish industry, in turn, is required to harvest only from approved areas, follow specific sanitary guidelines, properly label their products, and maintain records.

Over the rest of the 20th century, other challenges would spur additional changes to regulations and management, designed to safeguard the consumer, support the oyster population and its habitat, and protect the reputation of the industry.  In the 1950s, oysters were struck by a (non-harmful to humans) parasite called “MSX” (Haplosporidium nelsoni) causing massive mortalities.  Researchers at Haskins created a successful breeding program to develop MSX-resistant oysters, which lead to a state mandate (Title 4:16-10) for the Haskin Lab to do research, and “conduct[] monitoring and stock assessment of oyster populations, using the data collected to assist in formulating management strategies.”  In the 1990s, another (non-harmful to humans) parasite outbreak called “Dermo” (Perkinsus marinus) lead to the most dramatic changes in the Delaware Bay oyster fishery yet.

Since oysters were less susceptible to MSX and Dermo in the less saline natural seed bed areas of the upper bay, regulations changed in 1996 to allow oystermen to harvest there.  To maintain a healthy oyster population, instead of allowing unlimited collection during “bay season,” oystermen could harvest from April-November but were limited to a strict quota of exclusively market sized oysters.  Three groups work in partnership to manage this resource- the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, the Haskin Shellfish Research Lab, and the NJ Oyster Industry and Shellfish Council (made up of commercial oystermen).  HSRL conducts monitoring and a yearly stock assessment (subject to a formal peer review process) which determines the quota. The oyster industry, for its part, has a self-imposed tax per bushel that goes towards shell planting as a primary restoration tool.  Through this collaboration, the Delaware Bay is able to maintain, as Dr. Bushek explained, a valuable fishery in the face of high natural mortality (from predation and disease).

It’s useful to keep this history in mind when confronting the New Jersey oyster issue that’s most frustrating- the state’s 2010 “ban on research, restoration, and education projects using oysters in contaminated waters or waters classified as ‘Restricted’ or ‘Prohibited’ for shellfish harvest.”  Under this law, Oyster Restoration Stations and Community Reefs like the ones we maintain at Billion Oyster Project would be illegal.  Perhaps most egregiously, New York/New Jersey Baykeeper was ordered by the DEP to destroy their research reefs– one in the Navesink River in Red Bank and the second in the Keyport Harbor- including the thousands of live oysters successfully growing there.  According to a NY/NJ Baykeeper fact sheet:

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The fear is that poachers will harvest oysters from contaminated waters, unscrupulous dealers will label them as being “from a legitimate harvester — and if someone gets sick, boom, everything is shut down,” according to one commercial oysterman.  It’s not that poaching never happens- according to the Star Ledger, in 2009 66 people were caught harvesting in closed waters.  But as NY/NJ Baykeeper has stated, “projects weren’t visible to the public and not easily accessible to unlikely poaches” and “there is no record of anyone getting sick from our research shellfish in the history of the program.”  To find out more about the impact of these restrictions on New Jersey oyster restoration, check out NY/NJ Baykeeper’s site.

Thanks to the tireless work of Rutgers and NY/NJ Baykeeper, restoration work still goes on in New Jersey.  After Dr. Bushek presented on the management of NJ’s oyster fishery, Lisa Calvo (Aquaculture Extension Program Coordinator of HSRL), and Jenny Paterno (Graduate Assistant) shared the work of Project PORTS (Promoting Oyster Restoration Through Schools).  Much like Billion Oyster Project, Project PORTS “provides students with authentic research and restoration experience.”  Students might not be able to participate in oyster gardening at the waterfront closest to their schools like they do at BOP, but Project PORTS creates opportunities for in-school enrichment and field trips, as well as teacher workshops and curriculum.  Participation is free and Project PORTS works to tailor the program to specific schools’ needs.

Moreover, Project PORTS can still cultivate reefs in patrolled waters, which has lead to impressive results.  In partnership with the Nature Conservancy, students have filled thousands of bags of shell for a living shorelines project in southern New Jersey.  From 2007 to 2016, they’ve created five acres of enhanced habitat, 29,000 shell bags, planted 29 million + oysters, and engaged 10,000 students.  Jenny Paterno walked us through some of the curriculum they use with students- click here to check out all of the Project PORTS curriculum and activity guides.

Slide courtesy of Lisa Calvo.

Slide courtesy of Lisa Calvo.

 

For the hands-on portion of the evening, the Rutgers team brought us some Delaware Bay oysters to check out, a sampling of what they’d find while conducting their stock assessment surveys, including dead and live oysters, shell, seaweed, and other surprises:

We were really excited to learn from our neighbors in restoration, and we’re hoping they’ll be able to expand on their decade of restoration education work in the years to come!

BOP-CCERS fellows spent the rest of the night engaging in two “microteaching” lessons from Cohort One fellows Matt Rodman (M.S. 324) and Michael Seymour (M.S. 88).  Matt (who once upon a time was BOP-CCERS Principal Investigator Lauren Birney’s student at Pace!) demoed an environmental justice lesson certain to ignite the passion of young Jane Jacobs enthusiasts everywhere- a project in which students role play as different stakeholders determining where to site a wastewater treatment plant.  For Michael’s lesson, the fellows hopped around the room using different methods to test the pH of three mystery substances.  The energy was contagious!

We’ve got lots of new professional developments coming up that aren’t limited to BOP-CCERS Cohort Two fellows, including “Research Design” on November 8th.  Check out the Events page on the BOP Digital Platform to see more.  We’d love to have you there!