Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Groups extend Delaware Bay oysters a warmer welcome

 Oyster shells on "picking belt' from Delaware Bay. Photo:Cody Glenn  

A shift in ocean conditions is creating warmer temperatures and higher salinity in Delaware Bay, making oyster beds off Salem County, NJ the beds of the future, according to the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

To take advantage of those conditions and to help restore flood damaged beds, several organizations yesterday launched an experimental restoration project. It involves moving “seed oysters,” or shells with baby oysters attached, from the Cape May County area of Delaware Bay to storm-damaged oyster beds off Salem County.

Floods resulting from several consecutive storms, including Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, devastated oysters on the northernmost beds of Delaware Bay last year.

The impact was worse than any other storm in almost 60 years, killing about half of the oysters in the beds that comprise some 35 percent of the oysters supporting the fishery.

“This project is a partnership between the New Jersey Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and several members of the Delaware Bay Oyster Restoration Task Force,” said Jennifer Adkins, executive director of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. 

The partnership and Conservancy are providing $55,000 for the experimental project.

Replanting involves strategically placing shells along the Cape Shore region, where lots of baby oysters “recruit,” or attach to shells, but few survive unless protected from predators. These shells are then picked up and moved to the northern beds, where the attached oysters can grow over time.

Oysters on these northern beds are protected from predators and disease, but they grow slower and produce fewer babies than beds to the south. That is why, in some years in the past, oysters from these beds were moved south to quickly grow bigger and be harvested as part of the quota set each year.






In photo at left, Dr. Danielle Kreeger, science director of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, holds a planted clam shell with juvenile oysters growing on it. The "spat" will be replanted off Hope Creek in Salem County to restore storm-damaged oyster beds.









“Shell planting is the single most important action we can take to rebuild and revitalize the oyster beds of Delaware Bay,” said Dr. David Bushek, director of Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory. “Shell planting enhances oyster habitat, giving them a leg up on survival so we can continue to reap both the ecological and economical benefits they provide.”

Bob Martin, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the annual oyster harvest generates over $3.5 million for oystermen and pumps some $20 million into the bay region’s economy. 

James Hearon, a state Fish and Game Commission representative, said 16,000 bushels of shell fragments were planted about a month ago off Reed's Beach off Cape May County. Those shell fragments, hopefully now bearing juvenile oysters known as "spat," will be replanted.

Hearon said estimated that up to 80 percent of the 16,000 bushels should be successfully replanted. "We've seen as high as 1,800 spat per bushel," he said.

Congressman Frank LoBiondo underscored the financial return from oyster bed maintenance, putting it at almost $40 per every $1 spent.

"Who wouldn't do that over, over and over again?" he asked.


Related environmental news stories:

Aw, shucks; program protects oyster industryOrganizations partner to save Delaware Bay oyster beds, promote sustainability 

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