The NY/NJ Baykeeper has been granted permission from the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to drop dozens of cages, holding seed oysters, in the waters along the 2.2-mile pier at Naval Weapons Station Earle, in the Leonardo section of Middletown, to see if they can survive, and thrive, in the Raritan Bay.
If they do, the Baykeeper organization believes that shellfish gardens could be successfully sown into that section of the bay, near Sandy Hook. Oyster reefs, said the environmental group's leaders, are vital to the health of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. Oysters can filter the water and bring life back to the waterfront.
“It’s a good start,” said Baykeeper Executive Director Debbie Mans, who applied in January for the permit. “This permit is for a small research project. The larger project would be to create the reef.”
In June of 2010, the Baykeeper was forced by the DEP to remove its oyster reef experiments from Keyport Harbor in Raritan Bay and another in the Navesink River at Red Bank because the the state agency feared the shellfish could make it to market.
The area is not approved for oyster cultivation for human consumption due to water quality concerns. The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) worried that inadequate patrols left the oyster beds open to poaching.
The consequence that they might wind up in the food supply would have been negative for the health and viability of the State's $790 million-a-year shellfish industry, according to the DEP.
The oyster cages at Earle will be under 24/7 surveillance, eliminating the poaching risk, said Mans.
Commissioner Bob Martin said in a statement that the DEP was now on board with the Baykeeper project.
"With the help of the Navy and cooperation of the FDA, we can now allow the Baykeeper's research on oysters to continue and their potential benefits to the Estuary's ecology and water quality to be scientifically explored," said Commissioner Martin, in a press release.
"At the same time, we can adhere to federal health and safety mandates, taking precautions to prevent contaminated oysters from getting into the public food supply, while we prioritize our conservation patrols to protect our very important, nationally recognized shellfish industry in New Jersey."
Mans said the group is picking out a date in October to drop the cages from the long pier, which has an interior inland portion as well. This being a naval base, security is very high.
“Our folks have already been cleared for security. They’ve had background checks, and they've had to go through a day of training," she said. She said the group was warmly welcomed by the officers on the base. "So far, it's been really fantastic."