They're not breaking out the beer and the hot sauce yet, but the people at NY/NJ Baykeeper are toasting their oysters nonetheless.
"This is very exciting! Look at this," said Rutgers University scientist Beth Ravit, as she sifted through a net of baby oysters. Since last year Ravit and her teammates at Baykeeper have been growing the shellfish in the secure waters off the trestle that leads to the piers at Earle Naval Weapons Station.
Looking over her shoulder at the mini oyster shells, mounded and crusted over large surf clams, Meredith Comi, program director for the oyster project at Baykeeper said, "This is what you'd expect for a healthy oyster environment."
The tiny shellfish were seeded onto the clams and hung inside 18 nets which hung off the trestle in what was an experiment of science and also politics. If the oysters survived the winter, it would mean not only that Baykeeper had landed on a good spot to build a habitat for the shellfish, but that the state Department of Environmental Protection would loosen its grip a bit more and allow for an expanded project.
"We had a 90 percent survival rate," Comi said. "The best we ever saw at Keyport is 70 percent."
Comi said that the survival rate could have been positively impacted by the mild winter, but that the results still signaled that this site is a good one for growing oysters.
At a press conference Wednesday announced that the NJ Department of Environmental Protection has given the unofficial go ahead to the environmental advocacy group to expand their oyster growing research project that hopes to eventually repopulate the shellfish beds of Raritan and New York bays. Once Baykeeper has its permits in hand, the operation will move to a bigger site at Earle on the other side of the trestle, essentially a long road from Leonardo to the middle of Sandy Hook Bay.
Michele Siekerka, assistant commissioner of water resource management at the DEP, was on hand to show the state's support of the work.
"Today is really about successful partnership," she said, saying the effort between the Navy, Baykeeper and the DEP showed a joint mission in environmental stewardship, quality of life and public safety - "safe waters and sound science."
This oyster recovery marks the end of stage one of the long term oyster restoration effort.
"Before people start putting a lot of money and effort and emotion into a big restoration project," Ravit said, "we wanted to see if they can live there."
Next, between the current trestle and one no longer in use, the group will test three different support structures for the shellfish, across a quarter of an acre of water: Reefblk triangular reef structures, concrete Reef Balls and aquaculture cages.
The tenor of this week's press conference stood in stark contrast to the grim summer of 2010 when the Baykeeper was forced by the state, under pressure from the FDA, to rip out its oyster reefs in Keyport and the Navesink River, which represented years of planning, $80,000 of work and countless volunteer hours to grow oysters from seed.
According to Baykeeper, the FDA, concerned about food safety, and the DEP, about pouchers, ordered the researchers to remove their reefs and halt their work for fear that the oysters, in contaminated waters, would be illegally harvested and therefore lead to the sale of contaminated shellfish.
That led the an unlikely partnership with the Navy and its secure waters without the risk of poaching. "One of my field techs said, 'Why don't we ask the Navy?' I said, 'You can ask but they are never going to say yes.'"
Comi said she was glad to be proven wrong and said the Navy has been more than cooperative, checking on the oysters and sending progress reports to Baykeeper over the winter.
"We couldn't be happier to have the oysters here," said Captain David "Fuzz" Harrison, the commanding officer of the base. Gesturing to the waves puckered by the wind and schools of moss bunker behind him he said, "They're important for the future of this beautiful bay and the environment."
After Comi and Ravit's team recovered one of the lantern nets full of oysters to show the press, some were packed in a Lunchmate cooler and sent off with Keith Cooper from Rutgers University, who will test them for parasitic diseases and developmental problems.
On July 9 the Baykeeper will return to the site to measure all the oysters to determine their growth rate.
Mans said that the ultimate goal of the project is to improve water quality in Raritan and New York bays. According to Ravit, in addition to being natural filters for the water, the oysters build natural reefs that provide habitat for other marine wildlife, something the Baykeeper and the Rutgers scientists will continue to study.