Fish CoOp

Chris Knorpp (right) of Erma and Eladio Martinez of Bridgeton, both of Atlantic Cape Fisheries, harvest oysters along the Delaware Bay in Dias Creek. Some South Jersey fishermen are taking part in a community supported agriculture (CSA) program to market local seafood. Monday April 30, 2012. (Dale Gerhard/Press of Atlantic City)

Dale Gerhard

Oysters were once a huge Delaware Bay industry, back in the days of oyster schooners dredging them.

Thanks to research and careful management, they've made a promising comeback.

Oyster farmers on Delaware and Barnegat bays are raising and selling 1 million oysters a year, and the market for the seafood delicacy is increasing.

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Oddly enough, the latest threat to one of South Jersey's precious growth industries is from the talented bivalve itself.

Oysters, it turns out, are also superb at removing contaminants from polluted water. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.

Researchers from Rutgers University and the environmental group NY/NJ Baykeeper would like to see whether deploying sufficient oysters could help clean polluted bays and rivers.

Just one problem: Oysters on cleanup duty might sicken or even kill someone if they're eaten. And if that happened, the budding oyster-farming industry could be seriously damaged.

The state Department of Environmental Protection for several years had ensured it wouldn't happen, with stringent rules controlling oyster pollution projects.

Baykeeper was forced to remove cleanup oysters from Raritan Bay that were deemed too accessible to the public. Only a project at Naval Weapons Station Earle in Monmouth County - already heavily guarded - was allowed. The group placed another project in New York waters.

At the urging of the researchers, the Legislature and governor have overruled the DEP. A bill signed into law Tuesday requires it to allow more and easier oyster pollution research.

It's always risky when the political parts of government overrule the technical and scientific parts. In this case, it's probably OK and will produce a good outcome - if enough vigilance is maintained over the cleanup oyster projects.

Remediating water pollution is a valuable goal. New York allows such research, and it has a substantial oyster-farming industry. So there's a strong case for easing the restrictions.

But the researchers - Rutgers University, NY/NJ Baykeeper and any other entities that join in - better make sure none of their cleanup oysters are stolen and get onto a plate. That may not be as easy as it sounds to people unfamiliar with the habits of some baymen.

If a tainted oyster from this state harms someone, stories linking bad oysters and the Garden State could devastate its oyster farming. They could also set back progress toward oysters helping us clean up our messy waterways.

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