It's Harvest Time for Clams, TooReClam the Bay Rakes Up Successful Crop, Plants More Seedlings
Harvest time for clams dawned Saturday, and the crop in Waretown drew smiles from ReClam the Bay volunteers. Forty thousand inch-long bivalves had survived and thrived through a mild winter and sizzling summer since they were “planted” by the environmental organization a year ago.
“The growth rate is phenomenal, the survival is really good,” added Rutgers Extension agent and project leader Gef Flimlin, who stood waist-deep in bay water on Oct. 20 with a dozen others collecting the clams.
On a nearby dock, another dozen volunteers stood in a production line counting the seemingly bottomless buckets of bivalves. The men and women came from the Brick Township area southward to Egg Harbor to advance the clams to their next stage, which eventually results in being stocked in local waters.
ReClam the Bay grows and maintains as many as one million baby clams and oysters a year, not only to “re-clam,” as its name describes, but also to promote environmental education and involvement.
“As we grow seed clams and oysters to stock our local bay, we teach everyone how important and fragile the shellfish population, and our environment, really is,” president Rick Bushnell summarizes on the opening page of the website, reclamthebay.org. Educational programs with schools are part of the outreach.
On this Saturday, the group was harvesting inch-plus-sized clams that were placed last year, and then sprinkling fingernail-sized babies that will grow in the coming year: smaller baby clams that have been nursed in upwellers.
“Each year we grow about a million shellfish in the upwellers,” outlined Bushnell. “To do what we call grow out, we take them out of the upwellers, put them in the bay, and put a predator net over them. They stay there all that winter, and then they stay there the next summer, feeding and getting bigger. After a full year, we go and take them out of the bay.”
The harvested clams are dispersed at several locations in Barnegat Bay, where they will either continue to reproduce or can be caught by commercial or recreational clammers. ReClam the Bay harvested its first crop in 2006. Since then, it has planted more than 10.5 million clams and 1.5 million oysters in nearby waters.
Saturday marked the full year of growth for the 2011 crop. The nonprofit organization leases the two-acre growth plot from the state. The exact location of the natural nursery in the bay off Waretown isn’t advertised to the public. Another lease site for grow out is located in a state conservation area at the Sedge Islands west of Island Beach State Park.
“This is also the time of year that we take our growth data and statistical information and put all of that together, so that by mid-December we’ll have our annual report,” Bushnell said. The data is made available to the scientific community, and can serve as a launch point for further scientific study, he said.
“All of our data are about our observations, largely related to growth. We have our growth data from our farthest north upweller, which is in Mantoloking, to our farthest south upweller, which is in Beach Haven. There is no other data like it, because it covers the whole bay, all 40 miles of it.”
The mild winter, followed by warm waters of the summer of 2012, seems to have favored the crop. “These are as good as we get. They look great, and we’re getting good quantities,” said ReClam the Bay education coordinator Wes Dalzell of Brick Township.
“Because how warm the winter was, these clams, I think, got so much more growth,” Flimlin agreed, turning over a sample in his hand. “The one-year growth on here is really good. And it’s been managed well over the last year,” he added, referring to maintenance such as keeping the protective netting clean.
“We would expect to get stuff out at maybe 25 millimeters, and these are probably 25 to 30 millimeters or more in length,” Flimlin said.
“Legal size is an inch and a half, and some of these are coming up at an inch. And they were planted at about one quarter to a half an inch … We’re going to plant this in seasonal water so some of the commercial guys will have access to it periodically. And some of it is going to go down behind Mordecai Island, and some is going to go up around Barnegat Light at High Bar Harbor,” Flimlin said.
By summer 2013, the inch-long clams harvested on Saturday are expected to be legal size for harvest by clammers who have a recreational or a commercial clamming license, ReClam the Bay operators said.
Dalzell pointed out the growth that had sprung from tiny clam “seed” no bigger than sesame seeds. After four months in the upwellers, the seed grows to about fingernail size and can be placed in the bay shore grow out beds under the protection of a predator net.
“They grew from, you see that little spot on the end?” he pointed out. “That’s the size when we got them from a hatchery. We buy seed clams from a hatchery and we grow them in the upweller tanks around the bay until they get to about 10 to 20 millimeters.
“The survival rate in the tanks is very high, probably 95 to 98 percent, at least,” Dalzell said. “And they get put out in the bay here for another season. Last year’s are the ones that we’re raking up.”
Some topneck-sized clams that evaded last year’s raking were also being harvested on Saturday.
Oysters resurging in recent years were replanted last week as well –350,000 were put on a reef near the mouth of the Toms River on Monday by ReClam the Bay, the Barnegat Bay Shellfish Restoration Project, and the state Bureau of Shellfisheries.
It was like treasure found when on Saturday, the occasional oyster was discovered to have affixed itself to a clam seedling in a bed otherwise populated by the clams that were planted in the bay.
“I don’t want to be so bold as to say this is repopulating Barnegat Bay – is it an enhancement? Sure,” said Flimlin when asked about the scope of the efforts so far. “But we’re seeing interesting stuff: in one of the upwellers, the one at St. Francis Center in Brant Beach, we are seeing oyster larvae coming in and setting in the nursery tank. They actually came into the tank and set on the clam seed that was in there.”
This year the total number of seedlings grown in the upwellers was closer to three quarters of a million than the usual 1 million, due to problems including an electrical outage and a pump malfunction, Bushnell said. On the other hand, favorable weather and better management boosted the survival rate of those harvested last year to nearly 30 percent, up considerably from the first few years. In order to increase that number, the project has begun giving back 100,000 of the seedlings to the hatchery from which they were obtained, which has a better success rate in growing them before distributing them in the bay.
Growing awareness is as important as growing clams, say those involved in ReClam the Bay.
“As part of our education program, we have a speaker’s bureau. We go around to organizations, fishing clubs, senior citizen groups – all kind of people, and talk to them about what we do and what were trying to accomplish,” Dalzell noted.
“We also started a program called Shellfish in the Classroom. We go into classrooms and do lessons about water quality, on shellfish and how they’re good for the bay. And then we have a program where the students actually raise shellfish in tanks … This year there is a big expansion of that, because we’ve had requests from 10 or 12 new schools that want to have our program.”
ReClam the Bay has many other updates to report, which can be found on the website reclamthebay.org, along with ways to get involved. The phone number of the group’s headquarters, located at the office of Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Ocean County, is 732-349-1152.
When Bushnell prepares the upcoming annual report, he will build on a highlight of last summer, when Gov. Chris Christie during a visit to Brant Beach acknowledged Bushnell’s comment that “Barnegat Bay could and should be both an ecologic success and an economic success.” The bay has the potential to become a hub for “responsible aquaculture,” Bushnell said, a statement that was echoed in a resolution authored by Surf City Borough Councilman Peter Hartney.
“ReClam the Bay’s overall goal is to change human behavior, to cause people to become stewards of the environment,” Bushnell told the SandPaper last week. “When people see that this estuary does produce a good crop, we could, in an environmentally responsible way, be using this resource.”