N.J. oyster colony to be expanded

Posted: January 04, 2013

Stand by for increased shelling at a Monmouth County, N.J., naval base. State environmental officials are allowing an experimental oyster colony at a Navy pier in Middletown to expand.

The goal of researchers from Rutgers University and the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper is to reestablish the once-plentiful shellfish in the Raritan Bay to help improve its water quality.

The state Department of Environmental Protection allowed the groups to use nearly 11 acres off the Earle Naval Weapons Station to grow oysters and expand its research reef. It granted a permit last Wednesday for the groups to continue their work on a larger scale.

"We now have the ability to move forward with a full-fledged research and restoration project," said Debbie Mans, executive director of Baykeeper.

The group hopes to have at least 50,000 oysters in the water by summer, up from the current 3,900, she said.

The groups put bags of oysters into the bay in October 2011, and about 90 percent survived the winter. They cautioned that the extremely high survival rate might have had something to do with warmer-than-usual water temperatures that winter, saying a rate of 70 percent would be considered good. But they were encouraged by the results and applied to expand the project.

The long-term goals are to reestablish a species once so plentiful in Raritan Bay that maritime charts listed piles of oysters as threats to navigation, and to see if large amounts of oysters can help improve water quality in the bay, which has been hurt by decades of pollution. Oysters naturally filter the water in which they live, making them, at least on paper, ideal cleaning agents for the bay.

But the research hit a roadblock in 2010, when the DEP made Baykeeper rip out its oyster colonies from the bay in nearby Keyport. The state says it acted because it couldn't guarantee that poachers would not steal the oysters, potentially introducing tainted seafood into New Jersey's highly regarded shellfish industry.

The DEP said the risk to the state's $790 million seafood industry was too great.

The turning point came when the researchers approached the Navy about placing the oysters at Earle, a heavily guarded facility bristling with weapons, patrol boats and large ordnance that is loaded onto Naval vessels. Boats and pedestrians are intercepted far from the base's boundaries, eliminating any chance that poachers could get near the oysters.

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