As many as 50,000 oysters were hauled out of New York Harbor Monday under orders from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection -- headed for a non-watery grave.
The juvenile and mostly underdeveloped shellfish were part of a research project sponsored by the NY/NJ Baykeeper as part of a plan to bring oysters back to the harbor, where they were once so plentiful they were common fare for penniless immigrants in Manhattan.
Now there is no commercial harvesting in New York Harbor and no known large beds of the tasty mollusk.
But there is a significant clamming industry in New Jersey's part of the harbor, and state officials ordered the removal out of fear poachers might take some of the oysters growing in polluted waters and then get sick.
"There's a lot at stake here," said NJ DEP Commissioner Bob Martin in a press release.
New Jersey officials fear that news of someone getting sick from the unsanctioned oysters could impact the state's $790 million seafood industry.
While clams come from the same tainted waters where the oysters were being raised, commercial clammers know they have to send them to depurration tanks that filter out the pollution before they go to market -- poachers might not be so smart.
"We don't want to jeopardize an entire, nationally recognized industry," said Commissioner Martin.
But the researches say those fears are unfounded.
"We have no evidence people have been taking shellfish off of our project," argued Baykeeper Debbie Mans.
Under orders to comply, the Baykeeper chartered a boat to remove heavy plastic bags filled with oysters grown over the past year, along with heavy concrete balls to which they had been fastened.
The State said it was concerned that the federal Food and Drug Administration had determined that New Jersey was not adequately patrolling existing commercial shellfish beds for poachers who might use shortcuts to get seafood to market.
That led to the decision to close down research sites, the reasoning being if it didn't have resources for commercial beds, it certainly didn't have the wherewithal to protect the experimental plots.
"I think the state has done harm to the seafood industry by not providing the resources to do adequate patrols statewide," said the Baykeeper's Mans while arguing that her project could easily be relocated to the nearby Navy pier at Earle, which is heavily guarded for homeland security reasons.
The DEP has yet to respond to that idea, according to the Baykeeper, but the agency said in a news release that it has now "put together an adequate patrol force to provide required safeguards in approved shellfish growing areas."
While oyster research is now shut down in Raritan Bay, just a few miles away, the Baykeeper and others are hoping for permits soon from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to open oyster research beds on the New York side of the harbor.
"We expect the permits in a week or so," said Dennis Suszkowski of the Hudson River Foundation.
Project Manager James Lodge of the Foundation said the gardens will be placed in waters in Jamaica Bay, Bay Ridge Flats, Soundview Park, Governors Island and upriver in Hastings-on-Hudson.