TRENTON, NJ - The Department of Environmental Protection has agreed to allow the NY/NJ Baykeeper to set up an oyster research project in contaminated waters in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary in a security zone under the protection of U.S. Navy security personnel, Commissioner Bob Martin announced today.
The oyster project would be set up in the waters of Naval Weapons Station Earle, at its pier in Leonardo (Monmouth County), a plan that has the approval of the Navy and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Last year, the Baykeeper complied with a Department order to removed its oyster reef experiments from waters in Keyport Harbor in Raritan Bay that were classified as restricted because of water quality concerns. Shellfish gardening projects such as these are only allowed in waters the DEP classifies as approved because they meet water quality standards.
Commissioner Martin stressed that action was required at that time to help meet two key goals: safeguarding the public health, and protecting the health and viability of the State's $790 million-a-year shellfish industry, which includes many small businesses that employ many hundreds of state residents, providing incomes for thousands of people and creating needed tax revenues for New Jersey.
"With the help of the Navy and cooperation of the FDA, we can now allow the Baykeeper's research on oysters to continue and their potential benefits to the Estuary's ecology and water quality to be scientifically explored," said Commissioner Martin. "At the same time, we can adhere to federal health and safety mandates, taking precautions to prevent contaminated oysters from getting into the public food supply, while we prioritize our conservation patrols to protect our very important, nationally recognized shellfish industry in New Jersey."
The FDA put New Jersey on notice in spring of 2010, warning the State was not complying with patrol mandates to adequately safeguard shellfish growing areas, which left some contaminated waters open to poaching and its potential health risks. The FDA threatened federal sanctions and restrictions on shipping New Jersey shellfish out of state, which could have harmed the State's entire shellfish industry. As a result, Commissioner Martin in June, 2010 took protective steps related to research-related commercial species of shellfish in contaminated waters.
The DEP also ensured it complied with FDA requirements and provided required safeguards in all shellfish growing areas.
Commissioner Martin said the Department is now able to approve the Baykeeper's oyster research project at Naval Weapons Station Earle because the waters are under a high level of oversight and security by Navy personnel. Also, the Navy and DEP were able to work together and agree on terms by which the Baykeeper could set up its research project in those waters.
"I'm excited that Naval Weapons Station Earle will be able to work with the DEP and NY/NJ Baykeeper in research efforts to understand the survival and growth patterns of the Eastern Oyster in Raritan Bay,'' said Capt. David J. Harrison, Commanding Officer at Naval Weapons Station Earle. "These shellfish were once an important part of both the Bay's ecosystem and local economy, and could play an important role in the ecological restoration of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. This is a win-win situation."
Commissioner Martin stressed that the Baykeeper's oyster project must not harm the existing hard clam resources in the area near the Naval Station, which is located in New Jersey's portion of the Raritan-Sandy Hook bays. That area is home to a significant hard clam fishery that contributes substantially to the State's economy.
"The Department initially had some concerns about the possible displacement of a thriving hard clam resource in favor of oysters in a security zone," said Amy Cradic, DEP Assistant Commissioner for Natural and Historic Resources. "We have offered assistance to the Baykeeper in site selection and were able to identify ecologically appropriate areas for the research that do not negatively impact the hard clam population."
As the State agency responsible for management and protection of the shellfish resource, the shellfishing industry, and public health, the Department has the responsibility to consider long-term implications of all shellfish projects, noted Assistant Commissioner Cradic.
The DEP currently conducts large-scale oyster enhancement projects in Delaware Bay and has partnered with numerous groups to enhance shellfish populations in both Barnegat Bay and Delaware Bay. Those projects, however, are situated in waters that are classified as either approved or seasonally approved for shellfishing.