Environmentalists trying to bring oysters back to the waters of New York Harbor said they are "disappointed" by a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection order to ban so-called "research gardens" from most waters on the Jersey side.
"These are not making it to anybody's dinner table," said Beth Ravit, a professor of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University as she stood on the small research reef less than a mile offshore from the Keyport, N.J. harbor.
What she held was a wire basket the size of a briefcase filled with a dozen or so large clam shells, and growing on them in several spots were small oysters that had been planted there as juveniles last fall.
But even the possibility that they could grow to "market" size is too much for the DEP: The oysters, which are growing in polluted waters, could be poached, end up on a dinner table and then make someone sick.
"All you need is one person to eat tainted shellfish to kill an industry," said DEP Spokesman Larry Ragonese.
He explained the new state ban on research "oyster gardening" in restricted waters is aimed at protecting the reputation of New Jersey's multi-million dollar shellfish industry.
All of Raritan Bay, for example, is considered restricted waters, primarily due to the runoff of animal waste, as well as the discharge of insufficiently treated human waste from sewage treatment plants lining the bay or upstream in the Raritan River.
"This is an effort to minimize risk," said DEP Deputy Commissioner Amy Craddock.
At the Keyport Fishery a couple of miles from the Baykeeper's research reef, more than a dozen pictures of an active oyster industry from 70 or 80 years ago line the walls of the popular seafood market.
Yet Michael Nosti, 24 and son of the owner, seemed sympathetic to the state's ban.
"People heard bad things about oysters, nobody would want 'em," Nosti said.
But the NY/NJ Baykeeper, sponsor of the research, called the DEP's decision an "ecological crisis."
"These are the areas, [like] Keyport Harbor, places that are starting to come back, that need the research," said Meredith Comi, Oyster Program Director for the Baykeeper.
Ironically, a draft of the Hudson Raritan Estuary Restoration Plan that has been endorsed by the DEP calls for 500 acres of oyster beds in the Harbor, many of them in Raritan Bay, by 2015.
When asked about that apparent contradiction, DEP Deputy Commissioner Craddock responded, "I don't have a specific answer."
Though she quickly added, "There are other components [of the plan] where New Jersey will be able to play an active role."
Meanwhile, research oyster gardens just across the harbor in New York waters will continue, according to the NY Department of Environmental Conservation.
"We won't be increasing our efforts," warned DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren in explaining that no new reefs will be approved.
But she then made clear that "We won't be eliminating" the reefs that already exist for study purposes.
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