Commissioner Bob Martin today banned research-related gardening of commercial shellfish species in coastal and inner harbor waters classified as contaminated, and also is seeking immediate removal of species now being grown in such waters. The goal is to protect the public health and the economic health of the state's nationally significant shellfish industry.
Towards those goals, the Commissioner also said he intends to revamp the state's long-term shellfish gardening rules, and announced the DEP will not issue new permits for gardening of commercial shellfish, even for ecological restoration projects, in prohibited or restricted waters.
The purpose is to minimize the possible negative impact to New Jersey's $790 million-a-year shellfish industry, which could be severely damaged by an illness outbreak related to gardened or restored shellfish raised in research or educational projects.
The state also wants to ensure compliance with U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations.
"New Jersey has a great, nationally leading shellfish industry, that is number one in shellfish yield and second only to Massachusetts in its economic value,'' said Commissioner Martin. "It is a safe and clean industry, and one that we must protect.
"While we have high regard for research work being done on shellfish, we must ensure this small segment of shellfish growing does not cause a problem for the entire industry. So, anything that is being grown in contaminated waters must be shut down. We do not want to have contaminated oysters or clams getting into the public food supply.
"If someone gets sick from eating shellfish from contaminated waters, people may stop buying or eating New Jersey products or shellfish from approved waters. It could severely hurt the industry. We can't allow that to happen. It is more important than ever, with the problems being faced by the shellfish industry in the Gulf states, to protect New Jersey's vibrant shellfish industry.''
The primary growers of shellfish in tainted or seasonally approved waters are environmental organizations, with assistance of school groups, which are involved in legitimate scientific and educational efforts, including getting students involved as stewards of local waters.
In those endeavors, a variety of commercial shellfish, including oysters, hard clams and blue mussels, are grown for study purposes. However, poachers could target those locations and steal the fish, which could be sold to consumers.
The DEP makes about 60 arrests annually of illegal harvesters or poachers in restricted waters, primarily in the New York/New Jersey harbor and Raritan Bay. But the department does not have the resources to adequately patrol these areas where new shellfish are placed by gardeners, leaving them open to poachers, which is a concern to the FDA.
Commissioner Martin stressed the state fully supports these educational and environmental projects when they are in compliance with DEP policy. He said the DEP will work with research groups to identify waters where they can continue their efforts and explore alternate options such as raising non-commercial shellfish species.
"While stewardship is important and the DEP wants people to work with us to improve the quality of our state's waters, public health and protection of the industry are paramount,'' said Commissioner Martin. "We hope to develop new rules that could offer alternatives and gives direction to stewardship programs on how to undertake such projects in a safe and responsible manner.''
The new DEP shellfish gardening rules will be developed in cooperation with a variety of stakeholders, including volunteer organizations, the New Jersey oyster industry and the FDA.