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Cape fisheries try to hook state into granting research money

By MICHAEL MILLER Staff Writer, (609) 463-6712, E-Mail/Press of Atlantic City

LOWER TOWNSHIP - Dan Cohen spent Monday afternoon trying to pry research money from the state for fisheries projects.

His Cape May salt oysters may have been more persuasive than words.

Sherrie Preische, executive director of the New Jersey commission on science and technology, enjoyed some of the oysters on the half-shell during a tour of Cohen's Atlantic Cape Fisheries.

The Lower Township company raises oysters from babies called spat. After two years, the shells are the size of large chicken eggs and are ready for backyard barbecues. Cohen launched this aquaculture project in 1997 with $25,000 in state money to demonstrate that such oyster farming was feasible on the Delaware Bay.

On Monday, Cohen sliced up several raw specimens for Preische.

"A lot of our projects develop out of an idea that shows merit. But on a certain level, you need a resource to develop these ideas," Cohen said.

Preische's commission oversees about $8 million in research and development projects across the state. The commission's goal is to create jobs and bring scientific innovation to the workplace.

But industries from pharmaceuticals to telecommunications compete for the same pool of money, she said.

"We have to figure out how to be most effective with our resources," she said.

Cape May County has one of the East Coast's largest fishing ports. But unlike pharmaceuticals or telecommunications, the industry is made up mostly of small companies that have little money for their own private research, said Eric N. Powell, director of the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory.

At Lund's Fisheries, Inc., employee Maria Escalante stood in front of a plastic bin full of Illex squid. Lund's is the biggest supplier in the United States for this species of squid.

With a clipboard in one hand and a rubber glove on the other, she weighed and measured each black-eyed mollusk for a state-sponsored study. Lund's and Rutgers University are trying to find a way to measure the population of this species in the months before the annual fishing harvest. But the squid only live a year, making any census a tricky proposition, company owner Jeff Reichle said.

But the industry could launch innumerable studies with just a little state help. This science eventually could help feed the world, said Tom Fote, who serves on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

"To get good fisheries management, you need good science. The state budget has been a sore point with me. It's not enough," Fote said.

For example, while New Jersey spent just $8 million last year on research statewide, Maryland spent nearly that much on oyster-bed restoration, Powell said.

Powell suggested the state create a separate pool of money just for studies on aquaculture and fisheries.

"We'd like the state to recognize the need for more research and development money," Powell said.

One state-sponsored project is already having a global influence. At the Cape Shore Hatchery in Middle Township, a company called 4Cs developed a sterile oyster that has more meat than its naturally occurring cousins.

"They grow faster because they don't have to take the summer off to have sex," company spokesman Tom Rossi said.

Fundacion Chile, a South American company, bought this oyster-breeding technology that was developed in Cape May County. Now the Chilean company sells its own oyster stock to South Africa and Argentina.

Chile is known for its seafood, but oysters comprise a small fraction of the fishing industry there, company representative Ximena Iventes said.

"People in Chile like oysters but it's very expensive," she said.

Farmed oysters no doubt would create a demand because they are cheaper and more abundant, she said.

On Monday, Preische did not commit to any particular fisheries studies. But that did not stop local lobbyists from trying.

Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said aquaculture programs could be a boon for the state's fishing industry. He organized Monday's tour and helped himself to a few shucked oysters.

"New Jersey should be the East Coast center for aquaculture. We have the potential and ability," he said. "People have to eat."
 
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