High Hopes for Navesink River Oysters

June 12, 2017
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Operation Oyster, an initiative by the American Littoral Society, looks to use recycled oyster shells from local restaurants to attract oyster larvae that may be living in the Navesink River. The society hopes this project can be the start of reinstalling
oyster reefs into the Navesink.

By Jay Cook |

RED BANK – The future health of the Two Rivers now hinges upon a seasonal summertime delicacy.

Plans to attract live oyster baby oyster larvae, known as spat, is the key for the next attempt at drastically cleaning the unhealthy Navesink River. Oysters are known for their ability to filter massive amounts of water each day, up to 50 gallons.

“Oysters were a really critical part of this ecosystem for years and putting them back in, making them a vital part of the system again, is necessary for restoring the (river’s) health,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society.

On June 2, the Society launched Operation Oyster, a summer-long initiative where bags of recycled oyster shells will be hung along nearly 50 private docks spanning Red Bank to Rumson along the Navesink. If oyster spat does exist, then the society expects the grain-of-sand-sized larvae to latch onto the shell bags and begin growing.

The success of Operation Oyster is reliant upon three different tenets of oyster examination: understanding their presence, where they exactly are and how many there might be.

American Littoral Society’s executive director Tim Dillingham believes that Operation Oyster
could eventually help bring oyster reefs back into the Navesink River.

“We’re going to do as comprehensive a search that we can do,” Dillingham said.

Through September, volunteers and society members will check the oyster shell bags once a month for any signs of growth. After each examination, a new bag will be hung. Once the project ends in September, nearly 200 bags will be collected from the research.

And the end game?

“Somewhere down the road, we would love to see reefs back,” Dillingham said about oyster reefs in the Navesink.

While the project might seem like a longshot, there have been reports of Eastern Oyster activity in the Red Bank end of the river within the past year.

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Pim Van Hemmen, assistant director of the American Littoral Society, said a boater from the Monmouth Boat Club pulled a mushroom anchor up from the river in October and found a healthy Eastern Oyster attached. It was all the assurance that he and his organization needed to confidently move forward.

“We know there are living oysters in the river,” Van Hemmen said. “The trick is, can we catch them?”

It would certainly be a coup for both conservationists and homeowners alike who want to see the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers return to a healthy, stable level.

Up until the mid-20th century, Eastern Oysters from the Navesink were harvested regularly and made their way to some of the most lavish New York City restaurants.

Van Hemmen added that oysters were still a common resident of the Navesink River up until about the 1990s when two different diseases – MSX and Dermo –  knocked out reefs just beyond the Cooper’s Bridge, which connects Middletown to Red Bank.

Later in 2008 and 2010, oyster reefs built by NY/NJ Baykeeper in the Navesink River and Keyport Harbor were dismantled by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection after concerns grew over illegal harvesting coupled with the spread of potentially unsafe shellfish.

In recent years, pollution from feces and pesticide runoff has found its way into the rivers, and the conversation has shifted back to reinstalling the once-critical piece into the Two River ecosystem.

Although Dillingham and Van Hemmen said the project was put in motion six to eight months ago, efforts to collect old oyster shells had been ongoing for quite some time.

American Littoral Society staff members drop an oyster shell bag off of a private dock in Red Bank. The bags will rest above the riverbed so no silt or debris interferes with the study.

With the help of Doug Douty, an American Littoral Society trustee and owner of the Lusty Lobster, a seafood wholesaler and distributor based in Highlands, thousands of oyster shells were recycled from about 20 restaurants along the Jersey Shore.

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Following the “Shuck it, Don’t Chuck It!” campaign, Douty provided area restaurants with buckets for restaurant staff to toss the used shells into after being bussed off tables.

He was also the one driving around and picking them up.

“If there’s something important we can do out here to clean up these waters, it benefits all of us,” Douty said.

Douty continued, saying that once more restaurant owners find out about the project, “I think we’re going to get a lot more participants.”

While the recycling campaign directly supplemented the Operation Oyster program, Dillingham said it also helped with another facet of conservation.

“We wanted to learn from the historical mistakes we made, not throw the shell away, not have it end up in landfills, but rather put it back into the bays,” he said.

By this weekend, the American Littoral Society expects to complete the first round of dropping oyster bags into the water.

They hope it is the beginning of a long-term project to revive the health of the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers.

“It’s going to be dependent on the folks in the communities to sustain it after we get it going,” Dillingham said.

This article was first published in the June 8-June 15, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

Operation Oyster invites you to a Volunteer Training Session 

Join the American Littoral Society on Monday, June 19, from 6-7 p.m. to learn how you can play a role in Operation Oyster. The volunteer training session will be held at 2nd Jetty Seafood, 140 Ocean Avenue, Sea Bright, NJ. (MAP)

This initial training session will focus on how citizen scientists can help monitor shell bags hanging from docks along the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers. The bags are being put out to discover if oysters still live in the rivers. The experiment is part of a long-term effort to improve water quality in the two rivers.

Monitoring will be done in July, August and September.

No prior experience is necessary. However, participants will need a car and/or a boat to travel to monitoring sites along the rivers. All other training materials will be provided at the event.

Please RSVP by June 15. To reserve a spot at this training event or for more information, contact Littoral Society Education and Outreach Coordinator Julie Schumacher at 732-291-0055 or Julie@LittoralSociety.org.







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