Fisheries management has provided a model for how people can adjust their impact on the natural world to benefit themselves and the environment. Scallops have made New Jersey a leader in East Coast seafood landings, with Cape May the region’s No. 2 port behind New Bedford, Connecticut. And oysters, while slowly growing into a robust and lucrative industry, now also promise to clean coastal waters and help reduce flooding.
Years of federal fisheries managers allowing Atlantic sea scallops to thrive by limiting their harvest have yielded an abundance of this shellfish delicacy.
New data shows their harvest last year reached more than 58 million pounds, the highest since 2011 and the fifth highest since record keeping began in 1945.
Those scallops were worth $533 million wholesale, $100 million more than a few years ago and the third-highest harvest by value (as strong consumer demand has increased prices even as supplies are greater).
New Jersey is a leading supplier of surf clams and ocean quahogs, and also lands significant amounts of fish and blue crabs at its six commercial fishing ports. Thanks to effective management of sea scallops and rising prices for them, they account for half or more of the value of the state’s catch each year.
That kind of success may never be possible for oysters. Farming them has produced varieties that sell well and a slowly growing industry worth more than a million dollars a year. Hard to imagine, though, that their aquaculture could ever be scaled up to match the habitat sea scallops have in the ocean.
But oysters have another value, one that benefits the environment directly. They are good at cleaning up the water as they feed by filtering it. And they form reefs that can blunt wave action and reduce erosion.
The American Littoral Society, based at Sandy Hook in Monmouth County, has been helping create oyster reefs at four locations along Delaware Bay in Cape May and Cumberland counties. For four years, it also has been experimenting with oyster reefs in Barnegat Bay that remove excess nutrients.
Bags of whelk shells are placed in the water and then seeded with tiny oyster offspring. The Barnegat Bay project alone has placed 6.3 million oysters since 2015 and the society figures 207,000 have established themselves. It hopes to place another 70 million in the next few years.
Such oyster conservation projects have already spread quickly around the world and are still increasing as their multiple benefits become apparent.
Several European nations host projects, and an ambitious effort has a goal of placing a billion oysters in New York Harbor by 2035.
Cleaner water and reduced erosion, both done naturally, are an irresistible appeal of oysters. They’re also delicious seafood, so let’s hope they eventually can be safely and sustainably harvested.