By JOHN T. WARD
An effort to restore a once-thriving oyster ecosystem in the Navesink River got off to a small start last week with the help of scraps from restaurant diners’ plates.
Last Friday afternoon, a crew from the Sandy Hook-based American Littoral Society began attaching the first of 50 nylon bags packed with recycled oyster shells off the docks of Red Bank’s Oyster Point Hotel and riverfront homes whose owners had volunteered to participate in the project.
The idea: to attract free-floating oyster larvae, in the hopes that they’ll adhere to the shells and begin growing there.
The waterway once teemed with oysters, providing nutritious food and a strong economic engine for the region for more than two centuries. Oyster reefs “were so large that they actually stuck out of the water,” said littoral society executive director Tim Dillingham.
But by the 1990s, the oyster boom was over, hastened to its end in part by disease. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection declared 566 acres of the Navesink off-limits to shellfish harvesting in 2016 due to bacterial pollution.
Oysters can’t do much to combat fecal waste, but each is capable of removing nutrients from 50 gallons of water a day. That’s significant to the Navesink, which is awash in excess nutrients in the form of lawn fertilizers, Dillingham said.
Are there oysters in the Navesink River now? “We have a really good suspicion that there probably are,” said Dillingham.
A boater bringing his vessel in for the winter found a large one attached to his anchor chain in the Monmouth Boat Club mooring field off Red Bank last October, said assistant director Pim Van Hemmen.
The project is a “basic scientific investigation” to determine if larvae are in the river; if so, where; and whether conditions are conducive to a comeback, Dillingham said.
Littoral society “oyster wranglers” will check on the bags monthly for the presence of spat, or attached larvae.
The shell collection was spearheaded by Fair Haven resident Doug Douty, whose Highlands-based Lusty Lobster seafood distributor collected them from its restaurant customers and dried them out in the sun at Sandy Hook.
According to Van Hemmen, the collection is now “probably enough for 800 bags.” Down the line, the society hopes to build an oyster reef in the river, but “I can’t tell you how long that’s going to take,” Dillingham said.
A reef would have the added benefit of helping to mitigate the power of storm surges, said the society president Kathleen Gasienica.