By Art Gallagher and Grace Cangemi
The NY/NJ Baykeeper's Oyster Restoration program has been ordered shut down by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
The Baykeeper has been working to restore oyster beds to the Hudson-Raritan Estuary since 1999 in an effort to improve its ecological integrity. Oysters were once so prevalent in the Raritan Bay that streets in the Tottenville section of Staten Island were paved with oyster shells. This weekend, Delaware Bay Oysters were sold at the Highlands Clam Festival, walking distance from the Raritan Bay.
Yesterday during a press conference, the Baykeeper removed approximately 300 of the 50,000 oysters that they have been growing in the contaminated waters of the Raritan Bay in Keyport.
NJDEP's order is apparently the result of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration finding that NJDEP is delinquent in its patrolling of shellfish waters, so much so that USFDA is threatening to shut down New Jersey's interstate shellfish industry to interstate commerce, according to an article in the Asbury Park Press last week.
The concern, as expressed by NJDEP, is that poachers could steal the Baykeeper raised oysters, which are in high bacteria waters of the Raritan Bay, and sell them into the food supply.
Larry Ragonese, spokesman for the NJDEP told MoreMonmouthMusings that their policy is to prohibit the continued growing of commercially viable shellfish in contaminated state waters. The Raritan Bay has high levels of fecal bacteria. Ragaonese said that during an inspection of the site in July, "We found that about 20% of the shellfish were near or at commercial size already. There was no security of any sort."
USFDA's Annual Program Evaluation Report of the State of New Jersey Shellfish Program for the Fiscal Year 2009 criticized NJDEP for inadequate enforcement patrols to prevent illegal shellfish harvesting. The report said that 70% of New Jersey's designated Patrol Areas (21 of 30) were not in compliance during one or more thirty day Patrol periods.
Ragonese told MMM that NJDEP has not been compliant with USFDA patrolling requirements for many years. The Corzine administration diverted enforcement funding two years ago. Funding was cut further in Governor Christie's budget.
The Christie administration's DEP is committed to complying with the FDA. "This is not an issue of the DEP vs. the Baykeeper," said Ragonese, "It's the State of New Jersey's $790 million shellfish industry which provides livelihoods for thousands."
Despite the budget cuts, the new leadership of DEP has cobbled together an increased and improved patrol staff to be able to do the minimum required patrolling of waters where commercial shellfish harvesting is permitting, thereby preventing a potential shutdown of the $790 million dollar industry. The money is not there to patrol a research site in contaminated waters.
Ragonese also said that DEP would prefer that the Baykeeper raise a different species of oyster and that there is a open offer to replant the Keyport site with a different species.
The Baykeeper disputes that their project endangers the food supply or the commercial shellfish industry.
Debbie Mans, Executive Director of the NY/NY Baykeeper, said "The DEP seems to fear that there are people out there who will find our reefs - though underwater at all times, - choose our oysters - though they are too small for human consumption, - remove them -though they are firmly affixed to immovable structures, -and then sell them to unwitting consumers."
Mans showed MoreMonmouthMusings the oysters that were destroyed on Monday to make her point.
"DEP considers an oyster this size saleable," said Man, "an oyster this size is too small for market and there are very few this big in our reef." "Most are very small like these larvae attached to this clam shell."
The Baykeeper proposed moving their 50,000 oysters to a site on the Shrewsbury River. DEP did not approve the site and said the oysters should be moved to the cleaner waters of the Delaware Bay or disposed of as solid waste.
Congressman Frank Pallone sent a letter to DEP Commission Bob Martin, asking that the shut down be delayed. "The illegal actions of a few should not be allowed to jeopardize the ecological integrity of some of our most important coastal waters,'' Pallone wrote, "To endanger the proven success these programs have had would set a poor example for future initiatives. Oysters clean the ecosystem acting as natural water filters that would otherwise be costly to the state.''
Highlands Mayor Anna Little, who opposing Pallone is this November's election, contacted the Baykeeper to propose a solution. Little lives on the Shrewsbury River and has riparian rights. She offered her own property as a temporary home to the reef. In the event that was not acceptable to DEP, Little contacted the Highlands Baymen Association which operates the James T. White Depuration clam plant. The Baymen were agreeable to treating the oysters, making them edible, and selling them on the market with a large portion of the proceeds going to the Baykeeper.
Man was aware of Little's offer to host the reef which she said was attractive because it would eliminate the need for a Tidal Commission permit. However, DEP would still have to approve, she said. Man said the depuration would not work, because the oysters are too small to be marketable.
While these oysters were destroyed yesterday, Man and her team have not given up. In addition to Little's offer, the NOAA facility on Sandy Hook has offered the reef a temporary home, while the Baykeeper continues to look for a permanent solution acceptable to DEP.