HOW RUTGERS REVITALIZED AN INDUSTRY
Researchers continue to rescue the species
The next time you dive into a plate of Eastern oysters—the species known as Crassostrea virginica, native to the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast—tip your half-shell to Rutgers before you recycle it. Were it not for the late Harold H. Haskin, university researcher and namesake of the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory at the Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, that raw bar that just moved into town might not be there.
Roll back the clock, and the turn-of-the-19th-century docks along the Delaware Bay were pulsing with activity. Oyster harvests, ranging from 1 million to 2 million bushels, remained steady through the ’50s and transformed baymen into millionaires.
Then came successive waves of hardship. In 1957, MSX, a disease harmless to humans, all but devastated the Eastern oyster. Haskin not only co-discovered the disease. He and his colleagues bred six separate lines of resistant stock beginning in 1960. That got the industry back on track.
Right up until Dermo appeared.
Cue the next wave of selective breeding and innovation, which continues at Rutgers today, along with increasing support for a growing aquaculture sector.
Researchers Develop Sophisticated Stock
One example of this innovation can be found in the increasing sophistication of oyster genetics. Rutgers scientists, such as Dr. Ximing Guo, are examining new possibilities for “seedless” oysters, which retain extra sets of naturally produced chromosomes and therefore don’t spawn. If you know anything about oyster spawning, the advantages to aquaculture are clear. As with other creatures, less attention paid to reproduction means more energy for other pursuits—which, as it turns out, is a big deal for a bivalve.
Rather than losing up to half their bulk spawning, they give all of their energy to developing their most delicious qualities. “They grow faster, they reach market size sooner and they stay good and plump year-round,” explains Haskin director David Bushek, Ph.D. On the disease front, recent studies also show that natural selection plays a positive role in combatting certain pressures in the Delaware Bay. Moreover, scientists are investigating whether the oyster’s built-in resilience is the key to disease reduction overall. Standard procedure has always been to concentrate diseased populations, the idea being to keep them away from their healthy neighbors. But Bushek says large, spread-out groups can actually have a clean-up effect, diluting the percentage of disease in the waters and creating a healthier population overall. “They’re actually diluting the number of transmissible elements.”
Delaware Bay Declared Sustainable
Rutgers researcher Kathy Ashton-Alcox also has some good news to share: Oyster fishery in the Delaware Bay has been declared sustainable. As a field researcher for Haskin, she focuses on wild stock assessment and reef restoration, and prepares the annual Stock Assessment Workshop Report for the Stock Assessment Review Committee.
The 2017 edition includes a powerful statement: “The New Jersey Delaware Bay oyster fishery is sustainable under current management strategies; prescribed fishing exploitation rates implemented since 1996 have had no observed negative impact on production.”
It’s a remarkable thing to be able to say. In stark contrast to the years directly following Dermo, when overharvested waters might have been closed down for years at a time, smart annual planning has encouraged ever-more-bountiful harvests.
“Former Haskin director Eric Powell was very interested in evolving the way that the fishery was managed,” Ashton-Alcox says. “He worked very, very hard with the industry, the state and the university. I joke: I call it the triumvirate.” In recent years, that triumvirate has accomplished a remarkable level of consistency and measured growth.
From 1999 onward, a review committee has convened to establish scientifically based quota and management advice. In turn, the Delaware Bay Shellfish Council establishes strategies in concert with the DEP. The way Ashton-Alcox sees it, it’s all about playing the long game, and success can be seen via a key metric: catch per unit. It’s now taking fisheries less time to catch their quotas, with particular improvement seen over the last three years. In part, that’s because populations overall are on the rise. Additionally, where fisheries may have taken up to 10% of market-size oysters in the past, it’s now less than half that number.
Deep-Water Initiative Shows Promise
Rutgers also has an eye on the growing structured aquaculture sector. Small but mighty, many see it as the frontier for innovation. In a position created through National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sea Grant funding, Lisa Calvo, a Haskin-based aquacultural extension program coordinator, advances solutions at the intersection of science, policy and industry. “Working with key oyster researchers at Haskin and elsewhere, I think about how to help everyone do better at what they do in a more sustainable, more environmentally responsible way.” Year to year, the issues at hand vary, from population health to intertidal dynamics. An oyster farmer herself, however, she knows how much good science matters.
In particular, Calvo sees great potential in a new project comparing intertidal rack-and-bag operations to deep-water cages. “There are something like 30,000 acres of shellfish leases in deeper water in the bay,” Calvo says. “These areas were historically used by traditional watermen who would harvest smaller seed oysters from the natural seedbeds, and then plant them.” When disease arrived, the grounds were abandoned.
Atlantic Cape Fisheries will be the first to bring a deep-water Delaware Bay oyster to market this summer, with its new Elder Point variety. “It’s a really high-energy, strong-tide, rough-water kind of place,” explains farm manager Brian Harman. “Because it’s so rough, we had to develop our own type of gear that would stand up to that.” The oysters are grown in huge cages, 6- by 6- by 3-foot steel, and the team uses a 70-foot boat to go out and tend the cages. The team, known for its Cape May Salts brand, has been working on the initiative for close to two years.
“We’re growing on these traditional leases out in the bay that used to be dredged for wild oysters,” Harman says. Populations in those particular areas have declined as oyster fisheries started to direct harvest farther up the bay. But the waters remain viable for structured aquaculture.
“If this proves to be economical, it could hugely increase production in the bay,” Calvo says. While that would require significant infrastructure, and likely be most viable only for large operations or commercial fisheries such as Atlantic Cape Fisheries, it’s one more way that Rutgers research is framing the future of oyster farming.