COLD SPRING- Growing oysters in Lower Township could create jobs, and they could become a brand associated with this area as much as falling leaves are connected with New England and jazz with New Orleans.
At an Aug. 26 meeting of the Lower Township Economic Development Advisory Committee, Danny Cohen, president of Atlantic Capes Fisheries, discussed the future of aquaculture; the cultivating of shellfish and fin fish under controlled conditions.
Rutgers Aquaculture Innovation Center (AIC) in North Cape May hatches oysters that are later transplanted into tidal flats in Delaware Bay.
Tidal flats in Lower Township are located along the bay where the tide recedes one-quarter mile in low tide and returns covering the oysters at high tide, said Cohen. Oysters are placed in racks eight inches above the bottom of the bay.
AIC was built to be a demonstration facility for both shell fish and some finfish. He said talks are underway to try to expand the facility under a public-private partnership.
AIC is experimenting with spawning horseshoe crabs and blue crabs.
“Aquaculture is the fastest growing segment of agriculture in the world,” said Cohen. “Almost 50 percent of seafood consumed is aquaculture.”
Two popular species of fish grown in net pens - salmon and tilapia - would not be successful in this area, said Cohen, due to expensive energy and land as well as ice accumulating in the bay.
“You need to grow things that are indigenous,” Cohen said.
Delaware Bay has a long history of farming oysters dating back to the 1800s. Disease wiped out the natural population of oysters in the 1950s.
Beginning in 1997, Atlantic Capes Fisheries working with Rutgers University began cultivating selectively-bred, disease-resistant East Coast oysters called Cape May Salt Oysters which are now sold in Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Cohen said a number of major cities were seeing a resurgence of oyster bars and restaurants. The supply of wild oysters has decreased while aquaculture has increased, he said.
Committee member Curtis Bashaw, of Cape Resorts Group, said oysters are a heritage product that would be of great interest to his guests.
“There’s a story here of reconstituting an old economy in a new way,” he said.
Bashaw said he served Cape May Salt Oysters in all three of his restaurants.
Cohen said the industry could be expanded here by 10 percent increasing the amount of jobs from the current 30 to 300.
“We have an identity with a good name and we’re close to major markets,” said Cohen.
He suggested creating an aqua tourism trail visiting hatcheries, oyster beds and restaurants.
Bashaw said during 12-14 weeks of the year, tourists come to Cape May to go to the beach.
“The remaining 40 weekends a year, you have to fill up with weekend getaway people,” he said. “On Saturday, they need to while away three to four hours.”
“It’s not beach time, so it is history, it is wineries, and it could be about going to an oyster bar and learning about oysters,” continued Bashaw.
He noted there was no prominent grower of oysters on the East Coast readily known by the public.
“There is an opportunity because our region could become well-associated with oysters,” said Bashaw.
Economic Development Advisory Committee Chairman Norris Clark is working through a larger group of business and community leaders to develop 37 short and long-term economic ideas for the township and narrowing those choices to those that have the “biggest bang for the buck.”
The committee will further examine the feasibility of the ideas before they are presented to Township Council.