Will Cape May County Produce Oysters in Industrial Quantities Again One Day?

Betsy Haskin, of Cape Shore Salts, and Stephanie Cash of Dias Creek Oyster LLC.

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At our Feb. 2 Cape Issues meeting, we had the pleasure of welcoming into our committee Jon Gibson, a recent college grad who is interested in learning about and contributing to the efforts our group focuses on. We had special guests from the oyster industry, Betsy Haskin, of Cape Shore Salts, and Stephanie Cash of Dias Creek Oyster LLC. What follows is Jon’s account of what we learned from these two industrious ladies.

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The local oyster industry has experienced its share of ups and downs. During the late 19th century, production in the Delaware Bay area was booming with over 1 million bushels being harvested annually; but, after the oyster population was devastated by disease in 1957, the industry collapsed.  Since then, oyster farmers have opened new businesses and they have begun to thrive on a small scale with opportunity for continued growth. 

Oysters provide a promising opportunity for Cape May County’s economic future, which is why some are trying to bring new visibility to the industry.  Cape May County Freeholder Will Morey has worked to assist local oyster farmers, while Assemblyman Robert Andrzejczak (D-1st) has recently sponsored five bills related to aquaculture. Separately, we learned from Carole Mattessich, economic development coordinator for Cape May County, some estimates suggest that Cape May County could eventually produce up to 100,000 bushels of oysters a year. However, there are some obstacles that might prevent farmers from capitalizing on this potential.

First, there is the question of capability: do oyster farmers have the means to harvest more oysters than they do now? Capacity for expansion varies with the means of cultivation. Larger businesses work offshore, where oysters are grown to maturity in racks, bags or cages. These operations require a substantial investment in infrastructure, including a boat with equipment to lower and raise the cages. Smaller businesses, on the other hand, primarily operate in mudflats, with farmers transporting gear and oysters to and from the rigs by foot. In the summer, growers using either method also require ice or a refrigerated truck to keep the oysters from rising in temperature after they’ve been removed from the water. So, in order to expand the local oyster industry, farmers must have the means to both produce and transport on a larger scale.

There are also environmental factors that could affect the industry’s growth, because oyster farming in New Jersey is limited by geography and development.  This is because states with flourishing aquaculture, such as Maryland and Virginia, have coastlines with lots of small inlets and other sheltered areas that protect oyster rigs from the worst effects of extreme weather.  Comparatively, the Delaware Bay is wide-open, so the rigs there are more susceptible to being damaged or lost. 

According to Betsy Haskin, there are some sheltered spots in the back bays of Barnegat and elsewhere, but the water quality in these areas isn’t particularly good, and homeowners are opposed to having commercial ventures in their backyards.  As an alternative, Haskin suggests that if water quality were improved elsewhere, farmers would have more options for locating their operations – which raises the issue of government regulation. 

At present, oyster farmers must interact with 13 different state agencies in order to obtain the requisite permits and grants to operate, which has led to some cases where jurisdictions overlap and create confusion for both the agencies and the farmers. 

“Regulation is definitely an issue,” Haskin said before stressing the industry’s need for a comprehensive list of tailor-made rules. Aquaculture currently falls within the purview of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which has applied the preexisting rules for wild harvest – i.e., dredging. However, because these rules were not designed for cultivation, this has led to grey areas of regulatory interpretation that complicate the farmers’ day-to-day operations as they try to abide by the rules.

The oyster industry potentially holds great promise due to an unmet demand, benefiting both individual farmers and our communities. For this reason, it is important that local farmers have the means of operation, access to a suitable environment and a streamlined regulatory process.  While the industry may be only a shadow of its former glory, it is striving for a comeback.  How much of a resurgence remains to be seen.

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