The Department of Environmental Protection today joined with its partners – U.S. Representative Frank LoBiondo, the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, the oyster industry, Rutgers University and The Nature Conservancy – to launch a project to restore oyster beds that were severely damaged by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee last year.
Oysters cannot tolerate extended periods of living in fresh water. Stormwater runoff from these tropical storms inundated oyster seed beds in the northernmost part of Delaware Bay with excessive amounts of fresh water, killing upwards of 80 percent of the oysters in beds that are critical to future commercial harvests
“The Delaware Bay oyster industry is a vital part of New Jersey’s overall fishing and shellfish industry,” said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin. “The annual oyster harvest generates nearly $3.5 million to oystermen and pumps some $20 million into the bay region’s economy. The Christie Administration recognizes this fact and has consistently applied common sense strategies to help protect and enhance this industry, which is recovering from many decades of struggles with disease issues.”
“This project is a partnership between the New Jersey Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and several members of the Delaware Bay Oyster Restoration Task Force,” said Jennifer Adkins, Executive Director of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. “It’s a new element of our oyster- restoration strategy, and it’s aimed at promoting growth on the oyster beds in the upper part of the bay that were so damaged last year.”
A news conference was held today in Port Norris, Cumberland County, which is the hub for the bay’s oyster industry.
Last month, a contractor under the supervision of the DEP planted more than 2,000 cubic yards of clam shell in the lower bay off Cape May County’s Pierce’s Point. Oyster larvae that are naturally in the water become attached to this shell and develop.
Over the next several weeks, half of this shell and the tiny oysters growing on it will be moved by boat to seed beds at the neck of the bay, an area near Salem County’s Hope Creek. There they will be much safer from predation and disease pressures than in the lower bay. After a number of years of growth, the transplanted oysters will be moved back down to the lower bay to reach market size.
“Once again, the DEP is stepping up to the plate to help the oyster industry, which has a rich tradition and is a major part of the cultural and economic fabric of the Delaware Bay region,” said Richard Boornazian, DEP Assistant Commissioner for Natural and Historic Resources.
When Irene and Lee severely disrupted the commercial oyster harvest season last year, Commissioner Martin approved an extension of the harvest season that allowed the industry to reach its full 90,000-bushel quota.
And in 2010, Commissioner Martin approved a process that eliminated an antiquated rule that required the industry to harvest oysters only from certain boats. This rule change allowed the industry to consolidate their oyster licenses with licenses for harvesting of crabs and other species, enabling them to retire old oyster boats that had become unsafe and costly to maintain.
The DEP also operates a Delaware Bay Fisheries Management Office that oversees the oyster harvest and oyster bed management. This office works closely with Rutgers University and the Delaware Bay Shellfisheries Council to help the industry recover from two diseases, Dermo and MSX. Although not harmful to people, these diseases resulted in high oyster mortality rates.
“The DEP’s efforts in coordinating the shell planting program have worked and got the industry through what could have been some lean years, which is really important to the economy of the bayshore,” said Scott R. Bailey, Chairman of the Delaware Bay Shellfisheries Council. “The Commissioner also worked with us to get license consolidation approved, which saved the industry from having to maintain a fleet of aging, unsafe boats. Those proactive steps really helped us and we appreciate the working relationship we have developed with the DEP.”
“Shell planting is the single most important action we can take to rebuild and revitalize the oyster beds of Delaware Bay,” said Dr. David Bushek, director of Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory. “Shell planting enhances oyster habitat, giving them a leg up on survival so we can continue to reap both the ecological and economical benefits they provide.
“Restoring oyster reefs is a conservation priority for The Nature Conservancy,” said Moses Katkowski, Marine Conservation Coordinator for the Conservancy’s New Jersey chapter. “The Hope Creek shell replanting project will benefit people and nature today and into the future.”
Logo courtesy of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection