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Will shellfish be back?

Efforts to rebuild Barnegat Bay's clam and oyster populations start this year.

Published in the Asbury Park Press 02/2/05

Dale Parsons Sr. of Parsons Seafood in Tuckerton heads out to deliver clams on Tuesday. Shellfish once thrived in the bay but have declined in recent decades.

Dale Parsons Sr. and other watermen hope an effort to restore Barnegat Bay's clam and oyster beds will pay off.

There was a time, says Waretown fisherman William Hammarstrom, when a man could fill his boat with 3,000 clams in a day from the bottom of Barnegat Bay.

Those days were disappearing, along with the clams and the baymen, by the mid-1980s. Now an ambitious shellfish restoration project is planned for the bay, where organizers think they can bring volunteers and scientists together to re-establish clam and oyster populations.

By late this summer, a shellfish nursery could be set up and the first seedings under way, said Gef Flimlin, a marine agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service of Ocean County, who outlined the project during a meeting of Barnegat Bay experts at Ocean County College on Tuesday.

By this summer, the state Department of Environmental Protection hopes to use its 32-foot shellfish boat to probe promising sites where the remains of old oyster reefs could provide foundations for replanting those bivalves, said James Joseph, a DEP shellfish biologist.

But the job of bringing the shellfish stocks back is too big for any government agency, Joseph said. "It will take community involvement," he said.

Plans sketched by Flimlin call for the project to connect with community and environmental groups, maritime museums, fishing clubs and any local residents willing to pitch in.

Flimlin said a meeting with Ocean County Freeholder Joseph H. Vicari led to a commitment from the county for $17,500 a year for two years to help pay for the project start-up. Organizers are discussing possibly siting a hatchery with the Natural Resources Foundation of New Jersey, which is converting the former Lighthouse Camp in Waretown (Ocean Township) to an environmental education center, he said.

A popular cause

Shellfish are such an iconic part of Barnegat Bay culture and tradition that a restoration effort could become the environmental "poster child" for protecting the bay and its watershed, suggested several advisers to the Barnegat Bay Estuary Program.

"When we talk about the problems, like nutrient pollution, it's easy to lose people. This is something they can identify with," said Michael Kennish, a scientist and Barnegat Bay specialist at Rutgers' Institute of Marine and Coastal Studies.

The virtual disappearance of clams in many areas had social and economic impacts. Families lost their weekends of recreational clamming in waist-deep waters. Commercial baymen were forced out of the business in numbers that rivaled job losses from a major factory closing.

"Since 1985 there's been a loss of 900 full- and part-time clammers" in the state, Flimlin said.

Where professional clammers used to earn $40,000 a year with little more than strong backs and small boats, creekside docks have been rotting in southern Ocean County since the last good crop of wild clams in 1988, he said.

"From Barnegat Inlet to Surf City you could find all the clams you needed," recalled Hammarstrom, a veteran bayman and party fishing boat captain.

He contends that central Barnegat Bay would benefit most from removing large islands of dredged sand near Oyster Creek Channel, which Hammarstrom said cover once-productive clamming areas and constrict tidal flow.

"It's been decimated. Back in the 1950s the bay was full of oysters and scallops," said Kennish, the bay specialist. "Now the hard clams are shot, too, in the sense that they're not commercially viable in a lot of places."

Water quality improves

In a bitter irony, water quality in much of Barnegat Bay has been improving, at least in terms of bacteria levels that limit shellfishing. Even as clam numbers declined, the state has opened more waters for harvest. All that's missing are new clams, baymen say, leading to speculation that the real problem is that surviving clams can't generate enough larvae to reseed the beds naturally.

Experiments in Delaware's inland bays suggest that seeding with shellfish grown in onshore hatcheries might help revive local populations that can't produce enough baby clams or oysters on their own, John Ewart of the Delaware Sea Grant marine extension program told the Barnegat group.

Ewart said oyster growth on test sites is so promising that he'd like to seed more in Little Assawoman Bay, a shallow lagoon in lower Delaware that's nearly bereft of shellfish now. Building oyster beds has the added benefit of creating shelter and feeding areas for fish, and "if we can get some (oyster) larvae in there, we really have some potential to enhance the bottom," he said.

On Long Island's Peconic Bay, the Southold Project in Aquaculture Training has more than 300 volunteers dedicated to restoring bay scallops that were wiped out by brown tide algae blooms in the 1980s, said Kim Tetrault of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

"We have carpenters, plumbers, thoracic surgeons," Tetrault said. "Not all of them are retired either. We have people who take the train out from Manhattan once a week to do this."

Suffolk County officials are committed to spending $1.8 million on scallop restoration, with the Southold group as a subcontractor, Tetrault said.

"The deal is we've got to put 10 million scallops into the bay every year for four years," he said.

[ 02-02-2005, 10:30 AM: Message edited by: NIGHTSTRIKES ]

1,307 Posts
It seem's to me cheaper to pay the commercial guy's off to let them retire and the shellfish will replentish all by themselves !! :D
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