Lawmakers approve oyster reefs for research; Baykeeper could resume restoration in Raritan Bay

Debbie Mans, the executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper, is seen here with the cages  containing oysters that had to be destroyed in this undated photo. Photo: Courtesy of NY/NJ BaykeeperDebbie Mans, the executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper, is seen here with the cages containing oysters that had to be destroyed in this undated photo. Photo: Courtesy of NY/NJ Baykeeper

KEYPORT — Oysters, which play a critical role in estuary ecosystems, may soon return to Raritan Bay in small numbers as part of research and restoration projects.

State lawmakers approved a bill earlier this week that would allow artificial oyster reefs to be constructed in waters now closed to shellfish harvests provided they are invisible to the public and cannot be easily accessed.

The state Department of Environmental Protection would have one year to make new rules for the building of those reefs provided Gov. Christie signs the bill.

The bill’s approval was a victory for the NY/NJ Baykeeper, which has its headquarters on West Front Street. It has long lobbied Trenton lawmakers and officials to allow artificial reefs to be built in Raritan Bay and other waters in the New York-New Jersey estuary.

Baykeeper’s statement: click here.

In 1999, the Baykeeper staff installed artificial reefs in cages in Keyport Harbor and the Navesink River near Red Bank. In 2010, the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered the reefs destroyed.

Oystering was once one of Keyport’s primary industries. Oyster harvesting even pre-dated the founding of the town and was one of the primary activities of the Kearny Family’s Key Grove Plantation on which the town was later built.

Over-harvesting, pollution and siltation all contributed to the demise of the oyster industry. And a plauge of vibrio bacteria all but wiped out the oyster industry In New Jersey and the East Coast.

In recent years, New Jersey’s oyster harvests have been on the rebound. The open waters in the Delaware Bay still provide some natural harvests, but a niche industry of oyster farmers has grown up on the South Jersey shorelines.

Shellfish harvesting has grown from $98.65 million in 2003 to $159 million in 2012, according to NOAA figures. And commercial fishing in general employed more than 50,000 people in 2012, and was worth $2.87 billion across all sectors.

State officials insisted that poachers could harvest the Baykeeper’s oysters and sell them to a restaurant unless the reefs were patrolled around the clock. That, in turn, would have made people sick and could have potentially destroyed the state’s growing shellfish industry.

A DEP spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment on Wednesday.

Officials at the Baykeeper offered to assist the DEP with coastal patrols, but that offer was declined and a half a million oysters had to be ripped from the bay and the river to be tossed in the trash.

Baykeeper staff continue to insist that the order was misguided. The oysters were placed in cages and the individual oysters were too small to eat, said Sandra Meola, the Baykeeper spokeswoman.

More so, they Baykeeper staff have argued the logic of excluding shellfish restoration projects from closed waters is a mistake.

Oysters feed by filtering out nutrients suspended in the water. That same process can remove pollution from the water. A single oyster can filter about 50 gallons of water each day. Baykeeper staff hoped to learn how the oysters might clean the water around it and how easily they might survive in polluted water.

New reefs were built by Baykeeper staff within the jurisdiction of Naval Weapons Station Earle because of the round the clock protection the Navy would provide for their waters.

Meola said that initial results from that small reef were positive. Water quality improved and species of fish were being recruited to the reef, but she did not release hard data because a complete analysis hasn’t been made.

The Baykeeper is not the only organization to build artifical reefs. The Barnegay Bay Partnership and the Littoral Society each have shellfish restoration projects in Barnegat Bay, which was also a center for the state’s historical shellfish industry.

Gef Flimin, a Rutgers University research extension agent working with Barnegat Bay Partnership, said he also did not have data to release. State studies show that water quality in the bay has improved and that the numbers of shellfish have increased, he said.

Flimin said he wouldn’t presume that the work of restoring shellfish in Barnegat Bay was the sole cause of improving environmental conditions there.

The Baykeeper staff is looking forward to working with DEP officials to craft the rules for research reefs if Christie signs the bill, Meola said.