2012-07-12 / Front Page
Oysters survive winter; Baykeeper project to expand
DEP permits restoration project to expand at Earle
MIDDLETOWN — Oysters placed in the waters at Naval Weapons Station Earle late last year have survived the winter, proving that an expansive oyster restoration project in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary can be successful, according to the NY/NJ Baykeeper.
At a press conference at Naval Weapons Station Earle in Leonardo on June 27, Baykeeper officials announced that approximately 90 percent of the 3,600 oysters placed in the water in October survived, which has prompted the Department of N.J. Environmental Protection to allow the expansion of the oyster project at the naval base.
“Itwas really important for us to come together today and talk about the future of oyster restoration at Earle as well as the need to push for the future restoration of the Raritan Bay and the New Jersey and New York Harbor,” said Debbie Mans, executive director of the Baykeeper.
“This is just the start of what we hope is a really cooperative and productive dialogue with the state to really move forward with the restoration within the whole harbor.”
After one of three nets was lifted onto the pier from the murky waters below, excitement rippled through the scientists and environmentalists crowding around.
“This is very exciting. Look at this,” Beth Ravit, an environmental scientist with Rutgers University, said as she sifted through the oysters, raising some for the media to see.
“If they weren’t alive, they would be gaping open. They are all closed. This is terrific.”
Ravit explained that the oysters were the size of a thumbnail last October but have grown to a variety of sizes and have actually started to create a reef structure by attaching to each other.
The project included the use of individual seed oysters and spat-on-shell oysters, which are oyster larvae that attach to clam shells to increase the survival rate.
“We are pleased to say that the oysters that were recovered from this site had a 90 percent survival rate. The most that we have seen in this harbor, which was in Keyport, has been 70 percent,” said Meredith Comi, director of the oyster restoration program. She added that the high result could have been a result of the mild winter.
“What you see here is what you would expect for a healthy oyster reef community.”
The Baykeeper received unofficial authorization from the DEP to expand the oyster project to the area between the two piers that project from the base, Mans explained.
Instead of lantern nets, the Baykeeper will test three support structures to determine which one is best to withstand storm conditions in the Raritan Bay.
“We still have go in for a pre-application meeting with the DEP and work through the details,” Mans said.
“It makes sense for the Navy because it’s not an active zone and we think it would provide the protection that [DEP was] still looking for,” Mans said.
The success of the oyster project follows two years of controversy between the Baykeeper and the DEP, which forced the shutdown of the oyster project in 2010.
The DEP ordered the removal of oyster reefs from the Keyport harbor, citing concerns that oysters used for ecological restoration could be poached and sold to consumers, which could create a public health problem.
Michele Siekerka, assistant commissioner of the DEP, stated at the press conference that New Jersey has a $790 million shellfish industry that relies on safe waters and sound science.
“The last thing we want to do is open up prohibited waters that may lead to contamination and poaching and then we have bad shellfish going into our restaurants,” Siekerka said. “When we are harvesting in New Jersey, we have to make sure we do it in a safe matter, and it’s projects like this, in protected waters, that ensure that.”
After the shutdown in 2010, the Baykeeper approached the Navy and proposed placing the oyster cages at Earle, which is under 24/7 security, eliminating the poaching risk.
Capt. Dave Harrison, commanding officer at Earle, was at the briefing and expressed his full support for the project.
“We couldn’t be happier to have the oysters here,” Harrison said. “It’s important for the future health of this beautiful bay and this environment out here.”
Oysters clean the ecosystem, acting as a natural water filter. As they feed, they remove suspended sediment and algae, improving water clarity and enhancing conditions for underwater grasses to grow.
Last month, the Baykeeper filed a legal petition against the DEP in the Appellate Division of state Superior Court asking the panel to revoke DEP’s Combined Sewer Outfall (CSO) general permit, which the petition argues allows billions of gallons of sewage to flow into New Jersey waters in violation of the Clean Water Act and endangering human health.
“Ultimately what needs to happen is the water quality has to improve so that we can do a larger harvest,” Mans said at the press conference.