A Rutgers-led project is purchasing 76,000 oysters from New Jersey oyster farmers, who have been struggling to sell the shellfish following the shutdown of indoor dining, to plant the oysters this week and next week in the Delaware Bay at Morris River Cove, a site on the Mullica River and in a research reef developed for ecological restoration.
Lisa Calvo, marine scientist and aquaculture extension program coordinator at Rutgers—New Brunswick’s Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory and New Jersey Sea Grant and the project’s leader, said oyster farmers rely on being able to replace grown oysters with younger oysters. That continuous cycle has been broken due to the lack of sales, which has devastated farm management and revenue, she said.
“This pandemic has shown us that the industry was very vulnerable (due to) this reliance on restaurant trade, like a single-market demand,” Calvo said. “So by building in a restoration component, we create another market opportunity, so that diversifies the farmers’ portfolio."
An oyster farmer’s growing cycle generally lasts two years, and if oysters are not purchased or used once they reach their marketed growth, they get rid of or dispose of them, she said.
Daphne Munroe, associate professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences, said they want to make sure the big oysters currently on the farms end up in a bay to carry out the functions they would in nature rather than simply being lost when thrown away.
“Our oyster farmers are a really important part of the economy in South Jersey,” Munroe said. “Their farms themselves function as an important ecological resource. So both of these things mean that we want to make sure we do whatever we can to help support these small business owners in getting through the pandemic crisis.”
Calvo said this project assists with opening a dialogue and an opportunity for a relationship between restoration practitioners and oyster farmers now and in the future, which often work as separate entities currently, while also educating and informing the public that while the oysters are on the farm, they are doing great things for the environment.
Oysters are one of the few animals that connect the bay’s bottom to the water column, and they also clarify the water where they live, support submerged aquatic vegetations and serve as shelter for an array of organisms, which makes oysters foundational in estuaries by touching the ecosystem in various special ways, Calvo said.
“Because we’re putting whole adult animals into the environment, they’re already reproductively active,” Calvo said. “They’re already really at this kind of high capacity of filtration and pumping nutrients, and so this gives you a two-year jumpstart on what you might achieve with just planting shells.”
Munroe said it’s important for people to understand the role that oyster farmers play in helping the coastal ecosystem, and she hopes that these partnerships with the farmers can help spread that message.
“We have very close collaborations with the farmers. They value the science we can provide, and we very much value the access to their farms and their cooperation in the research that we do to help ensure sustainability of that industry,” she said.
This Rutgers-led project has worked closely with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Stockton University, Barnegat Bay Partnership, Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, The Pew Charitable Trusts and the New Jersey Aquaculture Association, according to an article on New Jersey Business Magazine.
Calvo said that bringing in these nonprofits that have a strong interest in environmental health helps when moving forward through the building of this exchange entity to foster connection between farmers and restoration practitioners.
“We tried to maximize the dollars that were available on the grant to go directly to the growers, and that will in turn support these bigger environmental benefits that will benefit us all in terms of the public and the health of our estuaries,” Calvo said.
She also encourages that people go out, buy and enjoy the delicious and nutritious local oysters to help support these oyster farmers.