Group Overcomes Odds to Replenish Oyster Reefs

WILMINGTON, Del. — Sea captains employed by the Delaware Bay Oyster Restoration Task Force are currently wrapping up efforts to replenish oyster reefs off Delaware and New Jersey. This comes after the task force successfully raised $200,000 to continue its seven-year-old program.

According to past experience, these efforts will boost the economies of local bayshore communities by approximately $5 million over the coming years. Rutgers University has estimated that past investments in shell planting have resulted in a return of at least $25 for every $1 invested in oyster restoration, and in some years much higher. A report released by the University of Delaware in May notes that retailers and wholesalers paid almost $3.7 million for last year’s harvest alone.

In addition to stimulating the economy, oyster restoration also results in cleaner water and better fish habitat. But shell planting needs to be done in June or July, prior to spawning season, to be effective.

“We worked hard to raise these funds in time,” said Jennifer Adkins, executive director of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. “Members of our task force met with fishermen, state and federal officials, local community groups, and businesses in an attempt gain support. We had nine months, and a couple of key donations came just in time.”

The money raised was used to strategically place, or “plant,” 159,000 bushels of mostly clam shells onto historic reefs in Delaware Bay. Approximately 100,000 bushels were planted off Seabreeze and Money Island, New Jersey, and 59,000 bushels were planted off Leipsic, Delaware. Another 52,000 bushels were planted off Leipsic under the settlement terms of the Athos I oil spill that occurred in 2004.

Shell planting is needed because baby oysters, or “larvae,” require a clean, hard surface where they can attach and grow after floating in the water. Without the new shell, oyster reefs would simply disintegrate due to natural processes. This has already happened to over 90% of oyster reefs in Chesapeake Bay, but not in the Delaware.

“The 2011 New Jersey harvest will exceed 90,000 bushels, the highest value since 1998 and the third-highest value since the early 1980s,” said Dr. Eric Powell, a Rutgers University professor and chairman of the task force. “This story of success comes from wise management of the resource and a dedication on the part of all participants to the shell-planting program.”

Those who contributed funding include: the Delaware Bay Section of the New Jersey Shell Fisheries Council, in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection; the Delaware Shellfish Advisory Council, in partnership with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control; the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, thanks to funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; DuPont Clear into the Future; PSEG Nuclear; and dozens of private donors.

Members of the business community also lent a hand. Those who helped with fundraising events include Johnny Brenda’s and the Oyster House, both of Philadelphia, and Flying Fish Brewery in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

“Oyster reef restoration is important to Delaware’s economy, our commercial oyster industry and the health of the Delaware Bay,” said Collin O’Mara, secretary of Delaware’s DNREC. “Shell planting is the most cost-effective way to increase harvests in the long term and support our watermen and women and the many businesses that sell Delaware Bay oysters.”

“The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is proud of this program and the partnership that has made it a success,” said Dave Chanda, director of the NJDEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. “Oysters are so important to the overall ecology of the bay and the economy and quality of life in southern New Jersey.”

Scott Bailey, chairman of the Delaware Bay Section of the New Jersey Shellfisheries Council agreed and added, “The oyster industry in Delaware Bay is a willing contributor to shell planting because we understand that healthy oyster populations are good for business and the bay’s future.”

Members of the PDE Alliance for Comprehensive Ecosystem Solutions recently identified shell planting for oyster restoration as one of six Priority Projects for the Delaware Estuary in 2011. This alliance of more than a dozen member-organizations picked it from over 70 projects submitted by environmental organizations in need of assistance.

Members of the Delaware Bay Oyster Restoration Task Force include the:

- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District
- New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection
- Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control
- Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory
- Delaware River Basin Commission
- Partnership for the Delaware Estuary
- Delaware State University’s College of Agriculture and Related Sciences
- Delaware River and Bay Authority
- Cumberland Empowerment Zone Corporation
- Delaware Bay Section of the Shell Fisheries Council
- Delaware Shellfish Advisory Council
- Commercial Township, New Jersey

Further details about the Delaware Bay Oyster Restoration Task Force can be found on DelawareEstuary.org, the online home of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

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