‘Whelk-Come Mats’ Aim To Re-Oyster The Rivers

July 9, 2018
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By Chris Rotolo |

American Littoral Society’s habitat restoration director, Aleksandr Modjeski left, addressed 40 volunteers Saturday, June 30 outside the Oyster Point Hotel, explaining the importance of the whelk-come mats they would make later that afternoon. Photo by Chris Rotolo

RED BANK – About 40 volunteers came to the Oyster Point Hotel Saturday, June 30 to make what the American Littoral Society calls “whelk-come mats,” part of its Operation Oyster initiative.

Under the instruction of the society leaders, participants attached whelk shells to flat rigs made from abandoned crab traps. The rigs will be hung on nearly three dozen docks in the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers in an attempt to attract oyster life that could revitalize the growth of these once plentiful environmental engineers.

Until the mid-20th century, eastern oysters were regularly harvested from the Navesink River and delivered to the finest New York City restaurants. The oysters were even distributed across the country to other eateries and fish markets.

“Like many things in our natural world, we didn’t take very good care of our oyster population,” said Tim Dillingham, American Littoral Society executive director. “Through over-harvesting, not putting the shells back into the estuary from which they came and pollution, we’ve managed to destroy our oyster population.”

“Those who live along the Navesink also recognize that we have water quality problems today. Our niche in this tremendous community effort to solve the problems is to restore oysters back into our rivers. We understand that there’s a missing link in the natural ecology of the coastal system and that we need to put these oysters back in the river in such a way that they’ll once again become a natural part of the ecology and provide all the services to us that they have in the past,” Dillingham added.

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Operation Oyster is now in its second year in the Two River area, as well as the Delaware and Barnegat bays. Saturday’s whelk-come mat outing served as an opportunity for Dillingham and his colleagues to display the organization’s newly built spat tank, a controlled aquatic habitat full of whelk shell-clusters where oyster larvae will be raised.

Completed whelk-come mats will be hung from docks in the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers in hopes of attracting oyster larvae that can mature over time and replenish a once thriving local oyster population. Photo by Chris Rotolo

Once the oyster larvae attach to the shell clusters within the tank – which is located outside the Oyster Point Hotel – these shells will also be attached to the mats that are expected to be lowered into the Navesink and Shrewsbury later this summer.

According to Aleksandr Modjeski, the society’s habitat restoration director who is a boat captain and licensed U.S. Coast Guard operator of uninspected passenger vessels with over 680 days at sea, these seeded mats will help the American Littoral Society determine viability and growth rates.

“These mats are going to be set up at 34 docks this year and by pulling the mats and studying them, it’s going to help us do science-based research that we need to have before we can really start to focus on restoration,” Modjeski said. “Before we start building reefs we need to know what can survive in these river waters in their current state. What is the growth rate? Why aren’t oysters surviving here now? What about disease?”

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Modjeski said that in the Barnegat Bay, he and his team have observed that when planting oysters, 90 percent of the seed becomes infected with disease. However, only 10 percent of their spat on shell – the process that will occur in the spat tank when larvae attach to shells – have been negatively impacted, a promising statistic that speaks to the potential success of this whelk-come mat project.

Ridgewood resident Ben Joseph, 17, hammers holes into his whelk shells so zip ties can be used to affix them to repurposed crab trap material, creating the whelk-come mat. Photo by Chris Rotolo

Modjeski will populate the spat tank with nearly 500,000 larvae within the next two weeks, before eventually using the tank to acclimate the larvae to the river water they will be placed in at approved sites along the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers.

These approved sites will be monitored by volunteer oyster wranglers like Ben Joseph, 17, a Ridgewood resident who spends summers with his grandmother, who has a home in Red Bank along the Navesink.

“We used bags last year to hold the shells and when we pulled them out it gave you a really good idea of the animals that are living in the river, but it also gave you a great look at the pollution,” Joseph said. “What I’m doing with this mat, it’s only going to do so much. It’s definitely a great start and I know we’re doing something positive, but more needs to be done.”

This article first appeared in the July 5 – 12, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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