What looks like a water-purification business to many people transiting the Cape May Canal by boat is actually a research facility.
David Jones, laboratory researcher and the Aquaculture Innovation Center operations manager, said he doesn’t think many people know about the Rutgers University facility or its scope of operations.
“Most people are not aware of us, but ‘Bizarre Foods’ did come last summer,” Jones said.
That is “Bizarre Foods America,” a Travel Channel show in which host Andrew Zimmern travels the country to try America’s most unusual eats.
The food that Rutgers AIC is not-so-secretly developing is oysters.
The AIC was conceptualized in the early 1990s, Jones said, but construction wasn’t completed until 2008. The facility, on the Lower Township side of the canal, was designed for the culture and study of any type of marine organism, but for five years, the facility has cultivated oyster seed, or baby oysters.
The seed is sold to commercial oyster growers, or donated to groups who are attempting a restoration of coastal ecosystems.
“Rather than traditional fishermen that are harvesting wild oysters from the bay, the oysters grown in the lower (Delaware) Bay use a containerized system,” said Lisa Calvo, Aquaculture Extension program coordinator. “They all go pretty much to a half-shell market, a more specialty niche market of high-end restaurants and better markets for eating raw on the half shell.”
Jones said “traditional” fishermen who harvest wild oysters typically shuck the oysters, which eventually are canned.
The seed the AIC sells to local oyster growers do not take on the same qualities that a wild oyster does, Jones said.
Whereas wild oysters may have elongated or irregular shapes and attach together in clumps, the Rutgers oysters settle without attaching to one another, and retain a fairly round shape.
“I think we produce a really beautiful oyster from the lower Delaware Bay. They are really special with a plump and meaty special quality,” Calvo said. “They take on the flavor from their surroundings, much like grapes. How they taste is all about where they’re grown.”
Matt Williams, of Cape May Court House, started growing oysters in the Delaware Bay three years ago this summer. Williams purchases seed from the AIC.
Right now, there are nine oyster farmers working in the Delaware Bay.
“All the wild stuff comes from farther north of the bay, where there’s lower salinity, so those (oysters) are less salty,” Williams said. “Ours are salty, and it depends where they’re grown.”
“The lower bay area is really special with a certain sweetness and real brininess,” Calvo said. “Our oyster is, I think, particularly a beautiful high-quality oyster that is competing well in the marketplace. It’s standing out and got some recognition there” on the TV show.
Williams said he learned how to raise oysters from the Internet, and hopes to sell 125,000 this year to local restaurants in Cape May.
It takes about 18 months to yield the first crop, Williams said.
In that respect, Calvo said, oyster farming is akin to agriculture.
The farmers in the lower Delaware Bay region use a method called “rack and bag,” where the oysters are raised in mesh bags placed on racks. When the tide rolls out of the Bay, the racks are exposed, making it easy for farmers to tend to the oysters.
“There’s not a big need for capital investment for vessels or heavy duty equipment,” Calvo said.
The AIC and Rutger’s are hoping for the growth of aquaculture in New Jersey. Calvo said an “oyster renaissance” is fueling a resurgence of demand, creating potential for the industry in New Jersey.
In Virginia, Calvo said, about 40 million oysters are aquacultured each year. In New Jersey, only about 11/2 million are aquacultured yearly, but there’s potential for more.
“In a little over a decade in Virginia, this has emerged,” Calvo said. “The markets are strong, and there’s tremendous interest now in locally made products and supporting local farmers. We’re poised for two great markets, New York and Philadelphia, where we are their local farmers.”
Jones, of the AIC, said he would like to see some private oyster hatcheries open. He isn’t aware of any others now in New Jersey beside the AIC.
“Once that happens, they can take care of some of the load,” he said. “It frees us up to test a lot of other species for aquaculture, but right now the oysters are paying the bills.”
Currently, the AIC staff does as many experiments as possible that don’t interfere with oyster production. Now, they’re conducting an ongoing experiment aquaculturing bait fish. The goal is to hold classes to see if people are interesting in learning to grow the fish.
Sean Towers, of Galloway Township, is the facility’s algal culture specialist. He grows algae to feed the baby oysters, but Jones would like the center to focus more on testing the human nutritional and medicinal value of microalgae.
“If we didn’t use it for (oyster) food, we could study its benefits,” Jones said.
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