River Ecologists Hope to Develop DIY Oyster Growth Kits

August 16, 2018
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Operation Oyster is underway as the American Littoral Society has successfully set 15,000 to 20,000 oyster larvae on whelk shells in a homemade habitat tank near the Oyster Point Hotel in Red Bank. Photo courtesy American Littoral Society

By Chris Rotolo |

RED BANK – It’s like a home brewing kit for oyster wranglers.

That’s the way Aleksandr Modjeski described the miniature oyster nursery tanks he hopes to have in hand next summer to boost the Operation Oyster initiative started by The American Littoral Society.

“The idea of these kits is about community engagement,” said Modjeski, a boat captain and licensed U.S. Coast Guard operator of uninspected passenger vessels with over 680 days at sea. “We have a great group of local volunteers who are dedicated to restoring the oyster population in our river system and they’re attracted to the idea of creating life. If we can marry that concept with the do-it-yourself spirit of brewing your own beer, the hope is that we’ll appeal to even more people,” Modjeski added.

The design of these DIY oyster nurseries would be a scaled-down version of the tank and pumping system Modjeski and his team have constructed on the promenade behind the Oyster Point Hotel in Red Bank.

Modjeski and representatives from the American Littoral Society gathered at the Oyster Point Hotel June 30 to unveil their “spat tank,” a controlled aquatic habitat approximately the size of a large bathtub, filled with whelk shell-clusters where oyster larvae can be raised and monitored until their maturation warrants placement in local rivers.

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Though Modjeski’s full-size tank can house hundreds of thousands of oyster larvae and hundreds of whelk shells, the do-it-yourself kits would be substantially smaller and much easier to maintain, with between 50 and 80 shells and a few thousand larvae.

“Cost of production is always the big question but our financial development director believes its feasible,” Modjeski said. “There are several grants we can apply for to help with funding or individuals or groups of volunteers can fund one just like a home brewing kit. There are options and I’m sure we’ll explore all avenues.”

Prompting the discussion of these kits is a promising development with Operation Oyster, as the Modjeski and the American Littoral Society recently revealed that their efforts behind the Oyster Point Hotel have resulted in the growth of a substantial number of oysters.

In mid-July Modjeski ventured to the banks of the Navesink and placed 500,000 oyster larvae inside the tank. When he returned last week he was thrilled to find an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 had set on the whelk shells and their growth has continued at a rapid rate.

“We had a really great set. It’s something we’re really proud of,” Modjeski said. “They’re not only surviving in the tank but they’re growing fast.”

American Littoral Society’s executive director, Tim Dillingham, called this successful larvae set inspiring and said the next step is to try and develop the specimens further in the actual river system itself.

“Now that they’re on the shell, we have to put the shell in the river and try and grow them out,” said Dillingham, who noted that similar successful oyster growth efforts taking place in the Chesapeake Bay are proof that this process can work and the model on which Operation Oyster is based.

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“This next part of the process, growing them out in the river, is what will really inform us about the habitat qualities of the different parts of the river. We don’t know yet if there’s a sweet spot out there for oyster growth, but if there is, we’re going to let nature run it’s course and lead us to it,” Dillingham added.

The way in which the larvae will be placed in the rivers is by fastening the whelk shell clusters to docks that are privately owned by volunteers. These volunteers have already started placing batches of shells on their docks by crafting “Whelk-come Mats,” a flat rig made of abandoned crab trap material with whelk shells fastened to it.

According to Modjeski, if his DIY oyster growth kits catch on, a single volunteer oyster wrangler with one small nursery could produce enough oyster larvae for five docks, substantially expanding the efforts of Operation Oyster.

This article was first published in the August 9-16, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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