Environmental rules and a lack of good Delaware Bay bottom acreage have slowed but not stopped oyster farming in Middle Township.
Farmers are reaching out to local officials for help in growing the industry, while conservationists are asking for caution. They want to protect species such as horseshoe crabs and the migrating red knot birds that depend on the Delaware Bayshore for survival.
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Earlier this month, Middle Township officials sponsored an oyster farming workshop. Researchers and farmers met with township officials and members of the public, looking to grow the industry that in 2016 sold about 2 million oysters statewide, according to Lisa Calvo, a Rutgers University marine scientist who also runs an oyster farm.
The 14 oyster farmers who participated in the survey reported income of about $1.37 million dollars, up from $1.1 million the year before.
There are about 20 oyster farmers in the state, and half of them work out of Middle Township, Calvo said.
Calvo, as Rutgers’ aquaculture extension program coordinator, works out of the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory near Reeds Beach. Her research focuses on oyster restoration in the Delaware Bay.
“Our biggest challenge right now is the issue with the red knot,” Calvo said. “There are significant conservation methods in place, and the growers are abiding by those regulations.”
There is limited activity allowed on the oyster farms from May 1 to June 8, Calvo said, the time the red knots are here.
The birds, which migrate thousands of miles every spring from southern South America to the Canadian Arctic, are a federally threatened species. They stop along the Delaware Bay to feed on horseshoe crab eggs, refueling for a grueling trip.
Conservationists worry that the mesh cages used by oyster farmers can stop horseshoe crabs from getting to their nesting spots at the shoreline, and the equipment used by farmers can scare the birds from their feeding spots.
Farmers also have been asked to elevate their racks higher and move their farms farther offshore, Calvo said, to at least 300 feet from the mean high tide line.
Rules changed in April 2016, based on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion document, she said.
Matt Williams, of the South Bay Shore Co., and Brian Harman, of Cape May Salts, said the rules protecting the red knots and horseshoe crabs are too stringent.
“The birds use the same flats that we do,” Williams said. “But there’s not a lot of science behind (the rules).”
David Mizrahi, vice president of research and monitoring with NJ Audubon, said while there is room for oyster farms in the Delaware Bay, where farms are located is critical to birds and crabs.
“It’s all about proper siting. That makes all the difference in the world,” Mizrahi said.
The rules are more stringent for farms north of Pierces Point in Middle Township, Calvo said, than for those to the south. That’s based on the use of the beaches by red knots.
There is ongoing research by several agencies into the impact of the aquaculture industry on the bayshore, Mizrahi said. But conservationists have already seen some disturbances in the areas designated for farming by the state.
“The impact that we see is that the birds are not using the area of the oyster farms,” he said.
Mizrahi said the birds don’t tolerate the equipment used by farmers, such ATVs or power washers.
“Habituation to the equipment by the birds is unlikely,” he said. “The red knots are only in the area for two to three weeks each year. They don’t get a chance to habituate.”
Oyster farmers have to be concerned about the environment, Calvo said. The industry depends upon clean water. Shellfish farming is one of the greenest forms of farming on earth, she said.
Oysters are filter feeders. They’re naturally fed by the nutrients in the bay, so there is no need for outside food or antibiotics.
It’s an industry that could easily grow, Williams said.
“It’s hard to keep up with the demand. We could double in size every year,” he said.
But instead, the industry is in a holding pattern, growing slowly while the scientists try to determine its effect on wildlife, Calvo said.
Staff Writer Michelle Brunetti Post contributed to this report.