Small Discovery Could Mean Progress for Future Reef |
By Jay Cook |
RED BANK – Eastern oysters in the Navesink River have been elusive to environmentalists since disease wiped out the reefs in the mid-1990s.
But a recent small discovery may give those advocates reason to cheer.
The encounter came on March 31, just a few hours after the sun rose on a Sunday morning. Bill Carton and a crew of fellow members from the Monmouth Boat Club, a private boating club in Red Bank along the Navesink River, were conducting quadrennial inspections of their mooring lines in the river. When Carton’s own mushroom anchor came up, it was carrying a familiar 4-inch-long inhabitant – one of those rare eastern oysters.
So what exactly does this mean?
It has the potential for big things, said American Littoral Society executive director Tim Dillingham, who spearheaded an effort last summer to investigate any signs of natural oysters in the river.
“This is not a quixotic adventure. We’re not tilting at windmills here,” an excited Dillingham said this week. “We know this is a great sign that we can do this.”
American Littoral Society launched Operation Oyster in June 2017 as a program to find if, and where, there are signs of the eastern oyster in the Navesink River. Oysters have the helpful ability to filter up to 50 gallons of water daily. Re-establishing oyster reefs would be a natural way to clean the Navesink River, which has suffered from poor water quality in recent years from fecal contamination and fertilizer runoff.
The environmental group hung hundreds of oyster shell bags from dozens of private docks along the river as they studied to find any indication of oyster “spat” or larvae. Their research ultimately yielded no results after the summer-long initiative concluded in September, but state officials say this discovery will help the local groups going forward.
“This is a bit of good news after what I’m sure was a disappointing summer for them,” said Bruce Friedman, director of the Division of Water Monitoring and Standards, an arm of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “We’re excited that the Littoral Society is excited and also that they’re seeing something like oyster growth. That is a good sign.”
It’s been difficult for environmentalists to pinpoint any hotspot for oyster growth. But Carton, a Monmouth Boat Club member of two decades, and the DEP both say they’ve seen and quantified historical evidence.
Between the Molly Pitcher Inn and Marine Park, Carton said clam beds have historically been found in an area 1,500 feet by 1,500 feet underwater. If clams can thrive there, so can oysters, he believes.
“There’s a huge clam bed right there in the Navesink River,” Carton said this week. “You can go down there at low tide and pull up huge ones.”
Friedman also said shellfish resource stock assessments from the state show there have been “small historic oyster reefs in the upper portion of the Navesink River that we have identified and quantified since the 1980s.”
While this recent find is generating excitement, it’s not the first time Monmouth Boat Club staff has found live oysters. In the fall of 2016, Carton and a crew came across a similar situation with an oyster on a mushroom anchor. The only difference, though, was then they only reported it after throwing it back into the river. This time they passed the oyster over to the DEP for analysis.
At the Operation Oyster launch last summer, American Littoral Society’s assistant director Pim Van Hemmen said the 2016 Monmouth Boat Club discovery provided enough evidence to launch their program.
Dillingham said American Littoral Society has been planning to try new methods for Operation Oyster heading into this upcoming season and this newest oyster find only helps their cause. The group will first have the shell bags sit in oyster spat tanks, so the larvae can attach, before rehanging them from the docks. Any oyster growth will be monitored until the shellfish reach a state-mandated 2-inch size limit and must be removed from the water.
The ultimate goal of bringing back oyster reefs still stands at the top of Dillingham’s wish list. Other environmental groups like NY/NJ Baykeeper, based in Keyport, have had recent success with building and sustaining man-made oyster reefs along Naval Weapons Station Earle’s 2.9-mile long pier in Leonardo.
If American Littoral Society can prove oysters can live in the Navesink, then they’ll gladly go to the DEP with all the evidence it needs to bring reefs in.
“We’re going to be looking for the sweet spot where the oysters can grow, provide the benefit to the ecology of the river, do their filtering job and not be in anybody’s way,” said Dillingham.
While they’ve been missing for the last two decades, natural oyster reefs were once an integral piece of the Navesink River’s watershed. Up until the mid-20th century, eastern oysters were harvested from the river and sent to some of the more lavish restaurants in New York City.
The real end goal, Monmouth Boat Club’s Carton said, is to return the Navesink River to a healthy body of water. He believes that’s the most important issue.
“I’m very happy to be part of it and that we’re trying to clean the river,” said Carton. “That’s why I’m a sailor and not a motorboater.”
This article was first published in the April 12-19, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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