On June 7th, 2010, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued a press release announcing a new policy which bans all shellfish restoration and educational activities in less-than-approved coastal waters. This announcement is specifically targeted to shut down the NY/NJ Baykeeper oyster restoration project, now in its 11th year.
The Atlantic Highlands Environmental Commission (AHEC) finds that this abrupt change in policy is deplorable. The subsequent New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's destruction of the Keyport oyster reef restoration project is unacceptable by any standards.
Prior to June 7th, 2010, oyster restoration by the NY / NJ Baykeeper has has been encouraged, financed, and awarded honors by the NJ DEP and by other government and non-government agencies. Quoting from the NJ DEP official web site (www.nj.gov/dep), "NY/NJ Baykeeper is a bi-state conservation organization with offices in Keyport, NJ. Baykeeper is recognized for its programs to protect, preserve and restore the Hudson-Raritan Estuary and its tributaries ... Baykeeper's Oyster Restoration Project, involving over 400 volunteers, involves oyster reef restoration and oyster gardening to grow oysters for our restored reefs ... This project is the only benthic habitat restoration project in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. This project just  became the recipient of a $1 million oyster restoration supplementary environmental project."
In 2009, the National Association of Counties Coastal Counties (NaCo) Restoration Initiative awarded the NY NJ Baykeeper a grant of $40,000. Quoting from the NaCo official web site (www.uscounties.org), "The Baykeeper will restore the historical feeding, spawning and growth habitat essential to local species of fish by expanding an existing oyster reef in the Hudson Raritan Estuary, a site that historically supported these living marine resources."
Oysters are a native species of New York and New Jersey. Oyster reefs covering the 350 square miles of the estuary between Ossining NY and Sandy Hook NJ have been destroyed, largely due to human activities and a widespread protozoan infestation in a 1957. Today oysters are extinct in the estuary except for the efforts of a few individuals and the NY / NJ Baykeeper oyster gardening program. Oysters build reefs, a characteristic unique to any species native to our area. Oyster reefs build up shoreline, resist storms and erosion, and provide habitat for a wide range of other plant and animal species. Oysters improve the water quality by filtering and sequestering algae and pollutants. Oysters have well earned recognition as a keystone species in the local ecology. In order to continue the recent improvement of water quality in northern New Jersey and specifically in Monmouth County, it is essential that oysters be protected.
Instead of supporting the restoration of oysters as a wild native species, the NJ DEP has used an argument involving oysters as a "commercially viable species," and ordered the destruction of restored oyster reefs in northern New Jersey. This will cost of more than ten years of conscientious effort by hundreds of volunteers and over a million dollars of taxpayer money targeted for oyster restoration.
The Atlantic Highlands Environmental Commission acknowledges that oysters are harvested for food in South New Jersey, in the Delaware Bay. The Delaware oyster harvest has been limited in 2010 to about 74 thousand bushels, valued about $2.5 million. AHEC also acknowledges that there have been audits showing that patrols of areas where it is not legal to harvest clams have been insufficient to control illegal clam harvesting. This is also of great concern, since many local jobs and restaurants in our area depend on the local clam harvest.
In its June 7th announcement, the DEP claims that at stake there is a $790 million a year shellfish industry. It is regrettable that this number should have been published without explanation. According to NOAA-NIMFS estimates, the dockside value of last year's wild clam and quahog harvest was around $31 million, hard clams, $3 million, and oysters $2.5 million. In "Fisheries of the United States," published by the NOAA Office of Science and Technology (http://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/), the entire fin fish and shellfish landings value for New Jersey in 2008 was estimated at $168.7 million, not including depuration clams. The DEP claim that there is a $790 million a year industry at stake is not verifiable.
The DEP narrative and rationale for shutting down the oyster garden project deserves examination. The DEP claims that raising oysters invites poaching because the oyster garden sites are inadequately patrolled. Should one of these oysters show up in a market, and a consumer fall ill from eating it, and the public reacted with panic, the shellfish industry would be shut down.
This story rests on the assumption market sized oysters can be poached from a volunteer oyster garden, but this is not possible. Oysters are kept in the volunteer oyster gardens for less than one year. According to the American Mussel Harvesters company, which harvests four different species of clams and 30 to 40 different brands of oysters, it takes between 3 and 7 years for an American oyster to grow to market size, 2.5 inches and above. Clearly this has happened in the NY / NJ Baykeeper's Keyport reef, a sign of success. In the few reef restoration locations of the Baykeeper, it is reasonable to add patrol or alarm capability to deter mischief or theft. To refuse to consider this and order the destruction of established reefs is unethical.
On review of the NJ DEP announcement on June 7th, the AHEC has found that it contains no verifiable or supportable statements. The AHEC supports the process of discussion and compromise between DEP and New Jersey Senator Gerald Cardinale to allow the NY / NJ Baykeeper shellfish research to continue, and requests that the harassing notices of violation against the NY / NJ Baykeeper be dropped. Barring a compromise that allows the Baykeeper's excellent work to continue, the AHEC supports the passage of New Jersey Senate bill S2122, overturning the assumed power of the NJ DEP to disrupt the work of the NY / NJ Baykeeper and its volunteers.