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GREEN CREEK – Through the summer, the beaches along the Delaware Bay typically remain quiet, compared to the crowds flocking to the ocean on every sunny day.

There are a few more sunbathers, a few more fishermen, a few more strollers enjoying the sandy, sun-soaked bay beaches, but no lifeguards, no ice cream hawkers, and little sign of the flood of tourists that power Cape May County’s economy.

Still, for the past 20 years or so, a new industry has grown on these quiet beaches, a little offshore on the mudflats that remain under water most of the time.

Developed with cooperation from Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory in Port Norris, rack-and-bag oyster farming has brought oysters back to the salty water of Delaware Bay.

There are eight or nine commercial oyster farming operations along the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay, growing oysters in a way that didn’t exist 30 years ago.

As the market expands, so will those operations, setting the stage for a fight over the muddy flats just off those quiet beaches, potentially pitting the needs of wildlife against commercial interests.

New Methods, Old Industry

Oysters were once big business along the Delaware Bay, driving development of whole communities. The historic sailing schooner A.J. Meerwald, a regular visitor to Cape May County, began life dredging for oysters on the bay.

Its home dock is just down the street from the Rutgers laboratory where Dave Bushek does much of his work, in the tiny Cumberland County community of Bivalve.

“The area around the Maurice River at one time had the highest concentration of millionaires in the state because of the oyster industry,” he said.

The Meerwald was launched in 1928. Bushek said there are other ships, just as old, still plying the waters dredging for oysters, although they’re outfitted with diesel engines.

There are about 35 active oyster fishing boats, some of which have been on the water for a century. According to Bushek, the oyster fishery is in great shape.

A report he helped write last year indicated the oyster industry is sustainable, and the number of wild oyster in the bay is increasing.

While the rack-and-bag system may be new, oystermen have moved oyster seeds from farther up the Delaware to the saltier bay since at least the 1800s, according to a state report.

Once, street vendors hawked oysters in Trenton and Philadelphia much like hot dog vendors at a ballpark do today.

By the 1940s, oysters were being moved to the Cape May flats in order to grow a more marketable, and more expensive, cocktail oyster in the saltier water, according to the report from 2004.

For the most part, the wild catch takes place upstream from Bivalve, but at one time the fishery extended almost to the mouth of the bay. In 1957, a parasite, MSX, decimated the oyster population in the lower bay. Further upstream, the reduced level of salt in the water stopped the spread, but MSX essentially ended the oyster business in Cape May County for decades.

New Method, Traditional Industry

Brian Harman’s career has been built on oysters. He’s the general manager for Cape May Salt oysters, one of the biggest players in the local aquaculture industry, a subsidiary of Atlantic Capes Fisheries.

The business launched about 20 years ago, through a partnership with Rutgers Cooperative Extension, using the rack-and-bag method oyster farming. They purchase baby oysters, known as seeds, and put them in a mesh bag on a steel rack on the mud flats.

The shellfish start out at about 2 millimeters, and they grow them out in a nursery to about a half-inch.

Through their lives, the oysters are sorted by size, to keep the big ones from starving out the smaller ones, and at about three inches, they are ready for market. That takes 18 months to two years, Harman said.

“They don’t grow in the winter. As the water gets cold they basically shut down,” he said. “They do all their growing from April to November.”

The company is projected to sell about 3 million oysters this year, both Cape May Salts and a new kind, grown in deeper water near the Maurice River. They’re called Elder Point oysters.

“We began experimenting with an alternate method in deep water, working out the kinks. It grows a really, really nice premium oyster 15 to 20 feet deep in custom cages. That’s working out really well,” Harman said.

While his company is one of the big players in the aquaculture side of oysters, it’s a small fraction of the industry in the bay, according to Bushek, making up only about 4 percent of the total catch each year.

Wild-caught oysters still land and sell, a lot more than the oyster farmers along the bayshore, but the aquaculture side continues to grow. Some say that could cause problems down the road.

Crabs, Shellfish and Birds

Larry Niles, a biologist with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation, has studied shorebirds along the bay since 1986. Of particular interest are the red knots, best known for their extraordinary migration each year to their breeding grounds in the Arctic.

Some individual birds travel from Tierra Del Fuego in South America to the Arctic, with one key stop to refuel: the Delaware Bay.

The birds and other migrating species enter the bay while horseshoe crabs mass along the beaches in the spring to lay eggs. These fatty eggs help the birds regain some of the weight they’ve dropped on their long flight north, and will fuel the rest of the journey.

But naturalists like Niles saw the numbers of horseshoe crabs in the bay dropping dramatically, primarily because the ancient animals were used as bait for the conch industry.

A long, and well-publicized fight led to restrictions protecting the horseshoe crabs, which have seen a slight rebound in numbers. Still, Niles is concerned for the future of these species, including from the use of the tidal flats that are home to a burgeoning oyster aquaculture industry.

The red knot is listed as endangered in New Jersey, and as threatened by the federal government. That lends the species certain protections, along with its habitat.

It’s Complicated

“It’s complicated, but there are several areas of potential impact,” said Niles in a recent interview.

First, there is the commercial use of the tidal flats, which Niles called unique and incredibly valuable, for the racks where the oysters grow. Studies are under way to see whether the racks keep horseshoe crabs away from the beach, Niles said.

Second is the increased activity within the flats, as workers use ATVs and power washers at low tide, potentially impacting wildlife.

But the greatest concern for Niles is the expansion of the industry, an expansion he indicated seems to be taking place without sufficient oversight.

It seems as though there is a huge area available along the bay beaches, he said, but the spots best suited for oyster growing are also the best spots for horseshoe crabs to lay eggs.

According to Niles, the state’s area for oyster aquaculture has already grown beyond its original boundaries, and he fears that could undo the work he and others have done on the bay for decades.

“The conservationist position is often misrepresented, saying we’re against aquaculture. We’re not. We’re against the unrestricted expansion into areas we’re trying to manage,” Niles said. “We want to work with the industry to develop effective methods. I keep on hearing that I’m against aquaculture. That’s just nonsense. I like to eat oysters, and I like the people who are growing oysters.”

Clean Agriculture

That’s one thing everyone seemed to agree. Harmon described himself as a purist, likes his oysters raw, maybe with a little lemon. Most of the aquaculture oysters are fated for raw consumption.

“Almost all of our oysters are slated for raw bars,” he said. “They’re just so good. Why would you want to fry them or stew them?”

When the commercial oyster catch was at its height, many ended up in stews, stuffing, fried or in any number of recipes, Bushek said.

The local volunteer fire company had a ham-and-oyster dinner planned as a fundraiser. He likes his raw as well, he said, especially in the winter when the dormant shellfish has built up a stash of sugars to see it through the cold.

He sees the returning oyster industry as a big success, adding that sustainability is a big part of what they do at the lab.

“If you think about oysters as an agricultural product, they’re recognized as one of the most environmentally-sustainable, even beneficial agricultural product that exists,” Bushek said.

There’s no fertilizer or runoff, no pesticides or antibiotics. “You’re not even adding food,” he added.

As filter feeders, the shellfish themselves actually help clean the water, he said. They also help create a more diverse ecosystem, he said, filling a function similar to a reef.

“Think of it, what is a forest without the trees?” he said.

He added that his lab has also looked at whether the oyster racks prevent horseshoe crabs from laying their eggs. After all, they are a shellfish lab, and horseshoe crabs are shellfish, he said.

“We’re pretty concerned about it as well. We just published a paper on work we did on whether or not we could identify any reduction in the horseshoe crab eggs,” he said. “We weren’t able to detect anything.” 

Getting Along Fine, for Now

Long after MSX came another parasite: Dermo, which slammed the oyster population in the 1990s.

Now, it seems that most oysters in the bay have developed immunities to both, but Harman is worried about another creature, a mudworm that makes its home on the shells of his oysters. They just need to be washed off, but the process takes work and time.

“It’s sort of like living mud, like little strands of spaghetti. With a small farm, it’s easy to manage. You just have to hose it off with a pump,” Harman said.

“The problem comes when you scale up. When you have thousands of racks instead of a couple of dozen, now you need to have a whole crew to wash them off,” he added.

Like most of the oyster farming operations, Cape May Salt oysters reach maturity on intertidal flats leased from the state. Unlike Niles, Harman is convinced there is plenty of room for commercial oysters and horseshoe crabs.

Harman said the fishery is very well managed, crediting the Haskin lab for helping the wild oyster stock increase each year.

He’s not worried about the protections for the red knots, either. The racks are arranged in rows, he said, giving room for the crabs to reach the beach, and they can fit under the steel racks as well.

Last year, NJ.com reported on a growing animosity between the oyster farmers and the conservationists, particularly after a change in status for the red knot in 2014 brought new restrictions for aquaculture operations in the spring. But like those bay beaches, things seem quiet now.

“The conditions that are in place now, truthfully, we can live with them,” Harman said. “They do a great job of addressing the birds’ well being. They let the oyster farmers function the way we need to.

“I feel that currently, we’re in a good place,” he continued. “I don’t know what could happen down the road.”

To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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