BEACH HAVEN — A group of volunteers is working to save a small island in Barnegat Bay using recycled clam shells and oyster larvae.
“If something’s not done, it will eventually disappear,” said Jack Duggan, 72, of Brant Beach.
For three years, ReClam the Bay has used old clam shells to grow oysters, then transfer those oysters to the bay, where they are building the state’s first “living shoreline” at Mordecai Island. The 46-acre marsh island that runs parallel to the bay side of Beach Haven is eroding at a rate of 3 to 6 feet per year, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is also in the midst of a wetlands restoration project there.
Mordecai Island is home to many species of wildlife, including endangered birds. ReClam the Bay hopes to help stabilize the wetlands through its project.
ReClam the Bay is a grass-roots organization with a focus on education. It was started about a decade ago by a group of people interested in helping save the environment. The name came from a phrase used by the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Ocean County: “The best way to reclaim the bay is to re-clam the bay.”
In addition to its Mordecai Island project, ReClam the Bay works closely with the Barnegat Bay Shellfish Restoration Program to help repopulate the bay with oysters and clams.
“The clams and oysters, we’re growing them here to plant them in the bay,” Duggan said. “It’s called aquaculture.”
Stockton University’s Field Marine Station is also helping to restore the oyster population. In June, 150,000 spat that had been started by partners Parsons Mariculture were planted in the Tuckerton Reef.
Changes in the water quality, disease and overharvesting caused the New Jersey oyster population to drop significantly.
According to Stockton, the spat used were a combination of whelk shells that were purchased and the first batch of recycled clam and oyster shells from the Old Causeway Steak and Oyster House and Mud City Crab House in Manahawklin. Restaurant owner Melanie Magaziner started a shell recycling project in 2015.
Long Beach Township Mayor Joseph Mancini took notice of the oyster harvesting project and reached out to Stockton’s Marine Field Station to see how his town could help. Township sustainability coordinator Angela Anderson helped recruit six restaurants to provide discarded shells, and township employee Joe Mangino collects and sorts through 50-pound bushels of shells.
“These shells should not spend their life in a landfill,” Anderson said. “They have too important a role here.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, Duggan met fellow ReClam the Bay volunteers Albert Nitche, 75, of Beach Haven and Roselle Park, Harry Patrick Befumo, 52, of Beach Haven, and Dominic Tumas, 71, of Beach Haven and Little Egg Harbor Township, at the old Coast Guard station at Pelham Avenue.
The all-volunteer group gets oyster larvae — about 2.5 million in just a small drop — from the Rutgers University Aquaculture Innovation Center in Cape May and places them in a 15-by-6-foot tank of water called an upweller. They add several bags of recycled clam and conch shells, giving the larvae three days to attach to the old shells and develop into spat.
Duggan said the clam shells come from a clam-processing plant in North Jersey. The group also uses conch shells shipped from Cape May.
After two to five weeks, the volunteers move the bags of shells with oyster spat to the bay.
“Those oysters can be used to build structure,” Duggan said.
In addition to the bagged shells, the living shoreline is made up of 12-by-12-by-8-inch “oyster castles” created from cinderblocks with spat attached.
ReClam the Bay is completing this project in conjunction with the Mordecai Island Trust. The shoreline, also called a breakwater, will enable tidal exchange, promote sediment transport and support aquatic habitat. Duggan said the project also helps protect homeowners.
“The bay is very much open here, and when the storms come, they’ll be a strong fetch that will rush up against the island,” he said. “If that island isn’t there, Beach Haven gets pounded.”
For more information, visit reclamthebay.org.