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Oysters, Clams and More: Future of Green Farming in Garden State?

Streamlining regulations and getting rid of excessive paperwork could spark an upsurge in “green aquaculture” in New Jersey

delaware bay oysters
Credit: WHYY Newsworks

In an effort to promote the eco-friendly aquaculture industry, the Senate and Assembly have unanimously passed a bill to reduce the paperwork involved in setting up this type of business. The lawmakers, who hope the governor will sign their bill to encourage “green aquaculture,” believe that fish-farming in New Jersey waters holds the potential to create jobs for the long term.

“We’ve made it virtually impossible for them to succeed. Only the most persistent people have been able to move forward,” said Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May Court House), who sponsored the legislation (S-317) to drastically streamline regulations so applicants could essentially submit one packet to be distributed interdepartmentally instead of encountering the many conflicting demands they currently face.

Rutgers University estimates that the 160 aquaculture businesses already operating in the state contribute $36 million directly and indirectly to the economy. But considering that surrounding states have grown their aquaculture industries to 30 times the size of New Jersey’s, those aren’t nearly enough dollar signs for the Garden State’s legislators and would-be aquaculturalists; they think the legislation will help to cut out some of the 11 different state, local, and federal agencies with which those aspiring to be part of the industry currently must file paperwork.

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture defines aquaculture as “the raising of marine and freshwater organisms under controlled conditions” and includes “food fish and shellfish, cultured pearls, ornamental and aquarium fish, and plants for food, fuel, garden ponds and aquariums.”

Aquaculture in the state currently consists primarily of hard clams, Eastern oysters, finfish like trout, baitfish and koi, and aquatic plants. With the Department of Agriculture reporting that more than 70 percent of all seafood consumed in the United States is imported and with at least 40 percent of that total produced by aquaculture “often in countries that have less stringent environmental regulations,” it seems clear that aquaculture in New Jersey has a lot of room to grow. The department has published a report that speaks of wanting specifically to promote farming of edibles like scallops, crayfish, trout, and striped, sea, and largemouth bass. The potential, it says, is also there to cultivate brine shrimp, mysid shrimp, and rotifers as feed, along with various species for ornamental use and engineered microalgae for nutraceutical development.

But while Monique Purcell, director of the agricultural and natural resources division in the Department of Agriculture, supports the intent of the legislation, she has misgivings about it. Purcell says she’s spent the past three years working with other regulatory bodies to streamline the application process for opening a shellfish farming business. In fact, the department released a consolidated application form just over a month ago. It bothers her that the new legislation incorporates what she believes are unnecessary redundancies and restrictions that will force her and her colleagues to try to accomplish too broad a mission too quickly.

The legislation, she says, is “talking about aquaculture in its entirety while right now we’re focusing on shellfish.” Why the concentration on shellfish? It’s because, for the time being at least, aquaculture in New Jersey can pretty much be summed up by two types of shellfish: clams and oysters.

The Department of Agriculture calls clam farming the most important aquaculture industry in the state. The department argues that with greater legislative support and advancements in technological efficiencies, clam farmers should be able to keep up with out-of-state competitors and even increase production 10 percent per year over the next decade. New Jersey’s commercial clam-farming industry is 20 years older than that of oysters, bigger by more than three dozen companies and relatively more lucrative, with just 10 (out of a total of 50) clammers reporting 2014 net sales at $1.5 million.

However, the South Jersey legislators who sponsored the bill care more about oyster farming, clustered as it is on the Delaware Bay side of Cape May and Cumberland counties and holding out the promise to deliver significant job opportunities to the downtrodden far-southwestern region. Oysters sold in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington bring in prices 35 percent to 45 percent higher than clams, and oysters hold a much more prominent position in the state’s history and heart.

Assembly bill sponsor Bob Andrzejczak (D- Cape May Court House) promises to do anything he can to revive the Delaware Bay’s oyster-farming industry to its late 18th century glory, when bountiful output made Cape May County’s Cape Shore home to the largest concentration of American millionaires at a time when oysters were the most popular seafood in the nation.

“We have a product people want. It’s a matter of getting through the red tape to be able to grow the industry,” Andrzejczak said, noting that the market has proven it will absorb everything New Jersey suppliers have to offer.

After overharvesting and then disease decimated the bay’s population in the 20th century, entrepreneurs launched commercial oyster farming in 1997, growing seeds — or tiny baby oysters —bought from the state’s sole hatchery, at Rutgers, into full-sized bivalves. According to the university, the approximately 12 businesses in operation in 2014 sold almost $1 million worth of oysters — a 14 percent increase over the year before. With Rutgers breeding two types of oysters, called Haskin CROSBreed® and Haskin NEH®, that can somewhat resist the diseases of the past, the state’s crop has earned a far-reaching reputation for excellent flavor, size, heartiness and meatiness.

Even better, not only does oyster development create jobs in farming, marketing, sales, boat repairs, and the like, it’s about as clean an industry as any.

“It’s perhaps the greenest industry on the planet,” says Mike DeLuca, director of Rutgers’ New Jersey Aquaculture Innovation Center, which runs three facilities in Cape May County and one in Cumberland County. “Shellfish provide shelter and habitat for other marine organisms and they filter out material from the water, thus cleaning it.”

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