A Promising Sign: Instance of Natural Oyster Growth in the Navesink

October 22, 2018
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Natural oyster growth was discovered in the Navesink River in September when members of the American Littoral Society discovered this oyster larvae attached to one of the organization’s spat cages. Photo courtesy ALS

By Chris Rotolo |

RED BANK – In the punishing heat of summer, members of the American Littoral Society ventured to the end of a dock outside the Oyster Point Hotel, where they affixed a crude cage composed of recycled crab traps to the end of a marina pylon.

Dangling from a rope and carefully lowered into the Navesink River, the cage not only held a collection of whelk shell clusters coated with oyster larvae – known as spat – but the hopes of all involved with Operation Oyster, an effort to repopulate Two River-area waterways with this once abundant mollusk.

According to the organization’s executive director, Tim Dillingham, those aspirations were exceeded in late September when a discovery was made even he couldn’t have anticipated: The larvae inside the cage showed healthy rates of growth and survivability, and natural, organic oyster growth was observed on the rig’s exterior.

“We have always kept an eye out for natural set, in the hopes there are still oysters out there,” Dillingham said in an Oct. 16 interview with The Two River Times. “But it was a very pleasant surprise to have our optimism confirmed.”

According to Christine Thompson, assistant professor of Marine Science at Stockton University, this natural set of Navesink oysters is not the first time in recent years a specimen was found living in the river. In March, members of the Monmouth Boat Club discovered a 4-inch-long oyster attached to one of their mushroom anchors that was entrenched in the riverbed.

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However, Thompson said witnessing multiple small spat settled and growing in a single centralized location is notable.

“Oysters have shown preference to settle near their own kind and especially around live oysters, not just oyster shell,” explained Thompson, who said the larvae that grew on the shells inside the cage could have given off “signal” chemicals, announcing their presence to attract other oyster larvae.

“This could explain why you observed oysters here but not typically on other substrates in the Navesink,” she added.

In April, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced its willingness to extend the Navesink Ambient Citizen Water Quality Monitoring and Source Tracking Program through June 2019.

The program was introduced in 2016 when the local waterway and shellfishing area surrounding the Navesink was downgraded from “restricted” to “prohibited” usage due to significant pollution concerns.

The American Littoral Society fostered oyster growth in the Navesink this summer by setting oyster larvae on whelk shells and placing them in cages and mats. Photo courtesy of American Littoral Society

That same year, the Sandy Hook-based Clean Ocean Action championed an effort known as Rally For the Navesink, which paired resident volunteers with local environmental groups to help remedy these pollution issues, most notably this DEP-supported initiative.

The DEP is eying 2020 for potential return of the Navesink to a more healthy designation, though Dillingham said this grouping of pre-set and naturally occurring oyster maturation is an indication that the waterway is healthy enough to support growth.

“It’s a very promising sign for our overall efforts to restore lots of oysters back into the river and we’re heartened by the fact that we were able to find this location for viable growth,” Dillingham added.

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Since their discovery, the oysters have been transferred to one of the American Littoral Society’s manmade reefs in the Delaware Bay. The DEP currently requires such a transfer once an oyster grows larger than 1.5 inches in diameter.

Dillingham said it’s unfortunate the oysters can’t remain in the river to mature, but this will be the process until the DEP deems the Navesink a more healthy environment for shellfish development.

“Bacteria from human sources and toxins from runoff from lawn fertilizers are still a major concern for shellfish,” Dillingham said. “There’s a lot of work being done through Rally for the Navesink and we’re hoping that soon the bacteria levels will drop to a point where the DEP gives us the okay.”

Dillingham said once oysters are permitted to develop in the Navesink they can aid the river’s cleanup. The species is a natural filter and a fully grown adult can process one to two gallons of water per hour.

To celebrate their exciting findings, the American Littoral Society is scheduled to host a event in Asbury Park at the House of Independents, 572 Cookman Ave. The Oct. 20 fundraiser will aid the group’s coastal conservation efforts and bring further awareness to the plight of the once prolific Eastern oyster.

Tickets to the event are $125 and include beer and wine, passed hors d’oeuvres and a raw bar prior to a screening of “The Oyster Farmers” and a panel discussion with featured oyster farmers, American Littoral Society staff and other experts in the field.

This article was first published in the Oct. 18 – Oct. 24, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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