The return of oysters as an important part of New Jersey’s shellfish industry has been good news for commercial operators and seafood fans. Oyster farming in Delaware and Barnegat bays provides nearby metropolitan markets with the freshest of these delectable bivalves.
Environmental groups’ interest in oysters has been keen, too, since they have the ability to improve their habitat in much-needed ways. Each oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water a day as it feeds, naturally reducing water pollution. Research also has shown that underwater oyster reefs can reduce the force of incoming waves, providing a degree of protection against storm damage.
Good to eat, a lucrative industry, cleans up pollution and reduces storm damage — no wonder people would like to grow these wondrous shellfish in many coastal waters.
There’s one major caution to fulfilling that vision. Oysters and other shellfish, especially those helping clean up polluted waters, if improperly handled can make people quite ill. The state’s $800 million a year shellfish industry would be sickened itself if even one such incident happened and headlines tied the state’s name to bad shellfish.
The state Department of Environmental Protection already has had to intervene to prevent that. An oyster colony growing in polluted Raritan Bay in Keyport, Monmouth County, was taken out in 2010 to ensure poachers didn’t steal the oysters and wind up sickening people who ate them. The story had a happy ending when environmental groups started experimenting with growing oysters in bags off the side of the nearby Earle Naval Weapons Station pier that extends far into the bay and is secured round the clock by heavily armed patrol boats. In 2016, rows of oysters were planted near the pier as a shoreline stabilization project.
The Legislature would like to see more of this, so last month it started putting together a bill to allow oysters in polluted waters for research, to improve water quality or stabilize a shoreline. Then it went too far and proposed blocking the DEP from regulating such oyster patches, and the bill was withdrawn for reworking.
Around the same time, the DEP had to put the kibosh on an entrepreneur’s plan to operate pick-your-own shellfish in Barnegat Bay. Matthew Gregg wanted to plant oysters and clams in his leased plot in the bay and let customers buy licenses, rent boats and dig up the shellfish.
This sounds reasonable at first, since anyone can buy a shellfish license for $10 and do the same elsewhere on the bay, even adjacent to Gregg’s leased plot. He said his customers would be more likely to put their shellfish on ice after harvesting, important to prevent bacteria growth, since he would provide the ice and monitor them.
But having a DEP license for a business makes Gregg’s operation different from people who privately dig up and eat clams and oysters. If they mishandle them and make themselves ill, well, that’s their responsibility and problem.
But if one of Gregg’s customers did so, then the story would say the problem came from a state-licensed facility and the reputation of the shellfish industry would be damaged. The DEP informed Gregg his license didn’t cover the kind of operation he planned.
It only seems like the DEP is being fussy about its shellfish regulations and monitoring because they have protected shellfish consumers and providers from serious problems for a long time. If they failed, there would be widespread clamor to do whatever it takes to ensure it didn’t happen again.
Oysters have been a key part of New Jersey’s shellfish success made possible through DEP help and oversight. The Legislature must be careful to let it keep doing that job well.