Despite No Results, Environmentalists Say Budding Oyster Program Is a Success

November 8, 2017
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Despite finding no signs of natural oysters in the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers this summer, the American Littoral Society will continue its Operation Oyster initiative into 2018.

By Jay Cook |

RUMSON – Although an elusive, water-cleaning bivalve was not discovered in Two River waterways this summer, environmentalists say their five-month-long search was not a failure.

The American Littoral Society, a Sandy Hook-based environmental organization, launched Operation Oyster in June, a full-court press attempt to locate naturally born oysters in the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers.

But after taking hundreds of samples along private docks from Red Bank to Rumson, the search yielded no signs of budding oyster larvae, known as spat.

“It’s a disappointment, but it’s not the end of the world,” said Pim Van Hemmen, the society’s assistant director, at the Oct. 26 Rally for the Navesink meeting. “We knew it was a long shot and we were hoping to find wild oysters.”

Concerns about the health of the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers have reignited the conversation about finding oysters, one of the best filter feeders, known to clean upwards of 50 gallons of water per day. If found and built, oyster reefs could play a major part in refreshing both rivers.

From June through October, Van Hemmen said “oyster wranglers” trained by the American Littoral Society helped environmentalists in sampling bags of oyster shells hung from private docks along the rivers.

The primary focus was on the tail end of the Navesink in Red Bank, where oyster larvae was found on an anchor at the Monmouth Boat Club last October. It was that bit of evidence which convinced the organization to push forward with the program.

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Van Hemmen said 195 total bags were tied off at 59 different locations throughout both bodies of water. In total, 390 total bag samples were taken by the environmental group.

Despite no concrete evidence of oysters living in the Navesink or Shrewsbury rivers, Van Hemmen reassured the effort wasn’t for naught. Research at each location throughout the summer yielded a body of data for animals living beneath the waterline.

In all, 31 different species were found inside or attached to the oyster shell bags. That ranges from typical underwater neighbors – blue and mud crabs – to some more interesting ones, Van Hemmen said. Notable amounts of orange-striped sea anemone, striped blenny, naked goby, and even a plethora of American eel were found sheltered inside the bags.

From those discoveries comes a mapping mechanism the American Littoral Society hopes to develop. Teaming up with the Marine Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) on Sandy Hook would be optimal, Van Hemmen said. The students could learn large-scale mapping and plotting, which in turn could benefit the public.

A focus on working with school districts immediately around the waterways is sure to continue as well, he added. In October the society spent a day at Forrestdale School in Rumson educating students on the importance of oyster reefs in the rivers, teaching about their history, and even giving the students a taste of the shellfish.

“What we believe is that if you get the kids to understand about what it takes to improve the health of the river, they’re going to go home and talk to their parents about it,” Van Hemmen said.

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He added, “The kids are going to teach parents in the way kids taught their parents about how to recycle, started telling parents to stop smoking, or to wear seatbelts.”

And what about the future of Operation Oyster? Van Hemmen said the group is pushing hard for state agencies, like the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, to allow oyster reefs back in the Navesink.

The assistant director also noted ongoing conversations with the state Marine Water Monitoring bureau about that reintroduction. In approved waters, the division is “not against us building a reef in the Navesink,” Van Hemmen said.

In the meantime, the American Littoral Society will reload until next summer. They’ll look to grow oyster larvae in “spat tanks” and, when the time is right, introduce them to the next round of oyster bags. When the spat attaches, then the bags can go into the river to kick start a maturation process.

But the society has made it clear it needs help from residents living along the watershed to make the initiative successful.

“I think if people make it clear they want oyster reefs in the river, that will help sway those that control that decision,” Van Hemmen said.

This article was first published in the Nov. 2-9, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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