Barnegat Bay Oysters Get Around – for a Good Cause

By RICHARD DODD | May 23, 2018

The Barnegat Bay Collective prominently shucked and served its locally harvested oysters, what could be called “party animals,” at the Billion Oyster Party (BOP) on April 27 in Brooklyn. Matt Gregg, owner of Forty North Oysters, expertly discussed creamy Rose Cove and briny High Bar Harbor samples under the watchful eye of Angela Andersen, producer of the critically acclaimed documentary “The Oyster Farmers.”

They participated with over 50 sustainable oyster farms from across the country and 20 New York restaurants to support BOP’s fifth annual fun-raising event. With over 1,200 paid participants at this sold-out party, over $340,000 was raised in this community-based initiative to restore New York Harbor, the crown jewel of the Hudson River Estuary.

I take pride in my association with the Barnegat Bay Partnership, ReClam the Bay and being a founding partner of BOP. I also reflected on the differing roles played in the stunning rebirth of the shellfish aquaculture industry along the shores of Long Beach Island and the saga of New York Harbor.

New York Harbor was once an ecological wonder that not only supported vibrant marine life but was the oyster capital of the world. Then human neglect conspired to render it a virtual dead zone.

In 2014, two educators at the Governors Island Harbor School, Murray Fisher and Peter Malinowski, shared a vision. They believed that the restoration of New York Harbor would create an enduring legacy for future generations. They carefully studied nature’s blueprint for maintaining estuary health. Oysters were a building block, or keystone species. The term keystone refers to the critical stone in an arch that holds the structure together. Removing it would cause the formation to crumble.

Oysters have also been referred to as the kidneys of our waterways. They perform a vital function that is similar to human kidneys that filter waste products from our blood. In fact, an adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day.

The educators’ dream to restore New York Harbor would create habitat, biodiversity and a destination for people to boat, fish, swim and perhaps once again harvest Hudson River oysters. Would New York reclaim its title as the oyster capital of the world? Would local briny delights serenade the palates of Manhattan oyster-slurping happy-hour revelers?

Unfortunately, no, due to the concentration of contaminants such as heavy metals and PCBs on the estuary bottom. The oyster’s role as nature’s unrivaled water purification species would have to suffice. Barnegat Bay oysters and other salty delights from Long Island, Delaware Bay and other sustainable farms would be needed to meet seemingly insatiable consumer demand.

The mission to restore New York Harbor by unleashing an ancient species of pollution-gobbling animals dating back over 100 million years had been launched, but would it succeed? The stated goal to grow a billion oysters on over 100 reefs by 2035 would recycle the harbor with clean water every 72 hours.

The results to date are promising. Over 25 million oysters have been restored. More than 750,000 pounds of oyster shells have been donated by 60 participating restaurants. Over 5,000 students from 70 schools have been trained as environmental stewards while learning skills to breed oysters, build oyster reef infrastructure, scuba dive, operate vessels and conduct research.

However, Fisher and Malinowski had stumbled onto a discovery bordering on an epiphany. Their environmental project was dwarfed in contrast to the educational movement they created. Children put down their iPhones and video games. Adults exchanged briefcases for pliers to build oyster cages. Restaurants donated oyster shells for reef restoration. Generational cohorts drawn from Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y Millennials and Generation Z Centennials bonded and volunteered. They became “Guardians of the Estuary.”

Fisher and Malinowski have recently announced a goal to teach one million students in the metropolitan area on the benefits and steps needed to restore New York Harbor. Stay tuned.

In the meantime and foreseeable future, expect to see the Barnegat Bay Collective’s local oyster farmers working closely with the Billion Oyster Project. And may we celebrate the role of our local “party animals” crashing future BOP parties in the spirit of environmental partnership.

Richard Dodd lives in Beach Haven Gardens.  



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