Oyster-research project in Hudson-Raritan Estuary OK’d

TRENTON – The Department of Environmental Protection will allow the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper to conduct an oyster research project in contaminated waters in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary in a security zone protected by Navy security.

The oyster project would be set up at a pier at the Naval Weapons Station Earle in Leonardo, Monmouth County.

Last year, the DEP ordered Baykeeper to remove its oyster reef experiments from the Keyport Harbor in Raritan Bay because the water there is classified as restricted, due to water quality concerns.

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said that action was required at that time to help meet two key goals: safeguarding the public’s health, and protecting the health of the state’s $790 million-a-year shellfish industry, which includes many small businesses that employ several hundreds of state residents, providing incomes for thousands of people and creating needed tax revenues for New Jersey.

“With the help of the Navy and cooperation of the FDA, we can now allow the Baykeeper’s research on oysters to continue and their potential benefits to the Estuary’s ecology and water quality to be scientifically explored,” Martin said in a statement. “At the same time, we can adhere to federal health and safety mandates, taking precautions to prevent contaminated oysters from getting into the public food supply, while we prioritize our conservation patrols to protect our very important, nationally recognized shellfish industry in New Jersey.”

The FDA put New Jersey on notice in the spring of 2010, saying the state was not complying with patrol mandates to adequately safeguard shellfish-growing areas, leaving some contaminated waters open to poaching and potential health risks. The FDA threatened federal sanctions and restrictions on shipping New Jersey shellfish out of state, which could have harmed the state’s entire shellfish industry.

Martin said the Department was able to approve the Baykeeper’s oyster research project at the naval station because the water there is under a high level of oversight and security by the Navy. Also, the Navy and DEP were able to work together and agree on terms by which the Baykeeper could set up its research project there.

“I’m excited that Naval Weapons Station Earle will be able to work with the DEP and NY/NJ Baykeeper in research efforts to understand the survival and growth patterns of the Eastern Oyster in Raritan Bay,” said Capt. David J. Harrison, commanding officer at Naval Weapons Station Earle. “These shellfish were once an important part of both the Bay’s ecosystem and local economy, and could play an important role in the ecological restoration of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. This is a win-win situation.”

Martin stressed that the Baykeeper’s oyster project must not harm the existing hard clams near Raritan-Sandy Hook bays. That area is home to a significant hard clam fishery that contributes substantially to the State’s economy.

“The Department initially had some concerns about the possible displacement of a thriving hard clam resource in favor of oysters in a security zone,” said Amy Cradic, DEP Assistant Commissioner for Natural and Historic Resources. “We have offered assistance to the Baykeeper in site selection and were able to identify ecologically appropriate areas for the research that do not negatively impact the hard clam population.”

The DEP currently conducts large-scale oyster enhancement projects in Delaware Bay and has partnered with many groups to increase the shellfish population in both Barnegat Bay and Delaware Bay. Those projects, however, are situated in waters that are classified as either approved or seasonally approved for shellfishing, the department said.

  Oyster-research project in Hudson-Raritan Estuary OK’d