Experimental Reef Successfully Returns Oysters to Local Bay Waters

Dec 06, 2017

In the bay halfway between Beach Haven and Parkertown exists an optimal location to mount an effort to bring oysters back to the area years after the population declined to near negligible numbers due to shellfish disease. Toss in the degeneration of water quality and overharvesting and it’s clear why oyster farming needed help to be re-established in local waters.

Enter Dale Parsons, a fifth-generation bayman from Tuckerton. His plan to bring oysters back and restore a natural habitat is working. For the second consecutive summer, 150 bushels of whelk shells were scattered on the bottom mud with seed oysters, this time from the Mullica River, allowing the shells to carry a new generation of oysters. Parsons, in conjunction with Steve Evert, director of the Stockton University Marine Field Station, erected the oyster reef in Little Egg Harbor Bay in July 2016 when Stockton marine science students dumped the inaugural 150 bushels of whelk shells on an acre of bottom mud in the Middle Grounds of the bay.

Developing the reef is part of a $52,000 grant from the Barnegat Bay Partnership and matched “in-kind” by Stockton to establish an experimental oyster reef and then monitor its progress.

“We took our larvae and put it side-by-side with Mullica River oysters. The reef also served as a natural recruitment for other oysters and bay creatures in the wild. That’s not what we were expecting,” Parsons said, “but that was what we had hoped would happen.”

Parsons, whose family has been harvesting shellfish for generations from Tuckerton, Little Egg Harbor and Great bays to support restaurants and seafood lovers from their Tuckerton store, Parsons Seafood, said it’s been a long time since oysters have been in the bay. Although there was a whole lot of talk about doing something to the change that, work of actual significance was long in coming, he said.

“We have to focus on the rebuilding effort and building the habitat up to improve the bottom of the bay,” he said. To do it, he needed the right partner and that’s when he teamed up with Evert and Stockton University. “When we started talking about putting oysters back in the bay, he got really excited.”

Evert and his team assess the work, which includes growing larval oysters, called spat, on whelk shells at Parsons’ hatchery before they’re placed into the waters. Parsons pumps bay water into the tanks with the spat, which attach to the shell and grow into oysters.  When Stockton sampled the work for the first time last year, it showed a 10 percent success rate, according to Parsons.

“For the first time doing it, that’s not bad,” he said, noting the average success rate is between 5 and 15 percent. “It’s not a perfect science.”

The project is extremely weather driven, he said, and the warm temperatures that extended deep into the fall this year helped a lot. “We usually have a few storms that lower the bay temperature by 10 degrees or more in a week.”

Another factor is the location of the reef, Parsons added.

“Site selection is the most important part of the process,” he said, explaining that bay waters between Beach Haven and Parkertown have the right type of wave energy for growing oysters. “There is adequate tidal flow for survival.”

Up until the 1920s, oyster farming was a thriving industry in the Little Egg Harbor region, but once the population washed-out it never returned to its former capacity. Instead, clamming replaced oyster farming in the local market, and generations of Tuckerton clammers made a living working on the water.

“All of the oyster work was a dream before (Superstorm) Sandy,” Parsons said. “There was no money to get started and do anything; there was no way to prove it would work.”

But it has worked, and so has the Oyster Recycling Program, a community initiative that began last summer in Long Beach Township. The project, led by township officials, Parsons, Stockton University, Jetty and its Jetty Rock Foundation, is a partnership with area restaurants to gather empty oyster shells to cure and consequently use to raise more oysters in a reef in Barnegat Bay.

The shells have to cure for six months, and are then set with the larvae in the Parsons mariculture tanks before Stockton vessels will transport them onto the reef site and monitor their progress. Over the summer, the township picked up shells three times a week from eight restaurants, then scaled down to two pickups a week after Labor Day. As of October, approximately 500 bushels of shell had been collected since the pickups started June 30, township Sustainability Coordinator Angela Andersen said.

Parsons said he’ll need between 1,200 and 1,400 bushels of shell when he sets the first legion at the reef. In addition to the shells collected by the township, he is curing shells from his business, and will likely add some whelk shells to make up the difference and “to add a three-dimensional value to the reef.”

“They could open their reef for a very limited harvest when viable,” Parsons said. “The idea is to allow them to give back to the public.”

If that idea pans out, the harvesting would be opened to anyone with a shellfish license so the oyster population isn’t exhausted again, he said. Similar plans are in place across other states for the past 20 years, Parsons said.

“New Jersey is very focused on tourism,” he said. “It likes to talk about what they have to offer, but it does nothing.”

Still, Parsons knew once the project got underway and had a little bit of success it would catch on.

“I am on the water everyday,” he said, “and nothing can change for decades.”

Parson’s efforts will continue with 25 percent of the grant budgeted to build an oyster reef off Good Luck Point in Forked River.

— Gina G. Scala


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