Convinced that the humble oyster can improve the quality of the Raritan Bay, a small army of scientists and citizen volunteers embarked on research project this summer that had them taking notes along 20 miles of shoreline, over shell-strewn beaches, alongside docks and reedy swamps from Keyport, through Union Beach, down through Port Monmouth, Highlands, Navesink and out along the bay shores of Sandy Hook.
They have created a map of that shoreline that has never existed before, one that ranks the best places for the re-establishment of the huge oyster colonies that once disrupted shipping routes, but now have nearly withered away with pollution and over-harvesting. The map would be a primary source for state, federal and non-profit organizations that wish to back an oyster site restoration.
Of the dozens of places identified, a wetlands area called Conaskonk Point in Union Beach, and another in Middletown, are getting the thumbs up for as a great place to plant an oyster reef.
Because one part of the Bayshore's shoreline was not open to the public, it was necessary on Friday, July 29, to get to the shore from the other direction for the last sampling collection point in the survey.
NY/NJ Baykeeper boats escorted their longtime partner in the project, Rutgers environmental scientist Beth Ravit, into the shallow waters of the Middletown shoreline, east of Naval Weapons Station Earle. Ravit jumped into the waist-deep bay water with a probe and a rake to take water quality samples, test the bay floor, and take note of structures, seaweed and other marine animals.
Oysters, says Ravit, are humble little "eco-system engineers." Oysters are filter feeders, and filter a lot of water that holds suspended solids, like mud or silt. "If they can eat it, they eat it. And if they can't eat it, they consolidate it into a little pellet and then they spit it out," she said. The pellets descend to the bay floor.
As the water clears, light can infiltrate and allows plants, like sea grasses, to grow. Just by doing what they do, oysters can change the properties of the water itself, she said.
Another thing oysters do is to attach themselves to hard shells during spawning season. "So over time if they are not disturbed or harvested, they grow up vertically, and they form the northern version of a coral reef," she said.
Their reef structures can grow so large that they can protect the shoreline by breaking waves of their energy and preventing erosion.
And inside the structure there are a lot of holes and crevices, which attract all kinds of other marine life — a good thing, explained Ravit.
In 2010, the NJ DEP stopped the Baykeeper's two operating reef projects in New Jersey, in the Navesink River, in Red Bank, and the Raritan Bay, in Keyport, out of fear that the oysters dropped in "contaminated waters" would find their way to market. While the oyster ban is in place, the environmentalists are working on research that will assist them in the future.
Baykeeper Executive Director Debbie Mans said, "We want to show that there's really terrific opportunities to do restoration here in Raritan Bay. The state's been doing a lot of focus on Barnegat and Delaware, but we feel this bay, that has so many people surrounding it, so many people using it, deserves the same sort of attention."