Delaware Bay oyster industry could pose harm to endangered species

Oyster farming has had a rough start on the Jersey Shore after decades of problems with shellfish diseases.

LOWER TOWNSHIP, N.J. - As the Jersey Shore's fledgling oyster aquaculture industry continues to expand, a new study proposes that it be restricted because of its potential harmful impact on the endangered red knots and other migratory birds along the state's Delaware Bay shoreline.

An environmental report by the state Endangered and Nongame Species Program suggests that oyster aqua-farmers should have limited access to their crops on the bay during the spring migration of the red knot.

This would be in addition to new permit regulations expected to be imposed in the spring by the state Department of Environmental Protection that could also require different "gear" for the oyster farms.

Oyster aquaculturists in Cape May and Cumberland Counties say their $18 million annual industry in New Jersey is so new - and its foothold in the marketplace so tenuous after decades of problems with shellfish diseases - that further government restrictions could irreparably damage it. At issue is a three-mile stretch along the Delaware Bay from Green Creek to Kimble's Beach.

"Essentially what we are trying to do is to seek a balance here and find a way to promote aquaculture in an area that has had many, many years of hard luck," said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP. "At the same time, we are also dealing with species that have certainly had their own environmental issues."

Hajna said the state agency was aware that red knots would likely become a threatened species under federal guidelines, so it began more than a year ago to meet with "stakeholders" on the issue.

"Essentially we want to create as little disturbance as possible for the red knots, while taking into consideration an important shellfish industry in the state," he said.

Tens of thousands of red knots migrate annually through the Cape May peninsula during the spring and fall to feed on nutrient-rich horseshoe crab eggs on the bay-shore beaches. It is a crucial stop as the birds make a 20,000-mile round-trip between South America and the Arctic.

And now the population of horseshoe crabs has been declining because of overharvesting - their blue blood is valuable for the detection of bacterial toxins in medical applications. A temporary moratorium has been placed on harvesting horseshoe crabs in New Jersey because fewer of their eggs are available for the red knots to feed on, adding to the decline of the birds, according to scientists.

Though the bird has long been listed as an endangered species in New Jersey, the rufa subspecies of the red knot was added this year as "threatened" and is federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act causing further scrutiny and requiring the DEP to amend permit regulations.

Today, nine oyster farms operate in Cape May County, producing about 1.5 million oysters a year. Scattered along the state's coastline from Cumberland County up to Monmouth County, an additional dozen or so aqua-farms operate on about 13,000 acres of oyster beds upon land that is mostly leased and managed by permit from the DEP. About 72,000 bushels of oysters are being harvested from New Jersey waters annually.

Environmentalists are applauding the recently released study by ENSAC, an 11-member panel appointed by the DEP to research and advise the state on matters involving protected species.

A strong approach

"Given the critical role Delaware Bay plays as a terminal migration stopover before knots breed in the Arctic, these warnings demand that we take a strong precautionary approach to intertidal aquaculture development in Delaware Bay," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a nonprofit coastal conservation organization.

The report states that the labor-intensive aquaculture operations along the bay shore, which require daily maintenance, pose the "likelihood of negative impacts on endangered shorebirds and horseshoe crabs from the intertidal" work.

ENSAC submitted the report recommending to the DEP that the expansion of intertidal aquaculture "be delayed" until there is a more "thorough evaluation of the risks" to the red knots, other shorebirds, and the spawning horseshoe crabs.

The study, conducted by Joanna Burger, a Rutgers University biology professor who sits on the ENSAC panel, says there is increased human activity along the bay shoreline - particularly that associated with the oyster operations - that is affecting the red knots. The oyster farms use a unique "rack and bag" system that requires daily hosing and cleaning of the oysters to maintain proper salinity levels and guard the shellfish against disease - and results in the shorebirds abandoning affected areas. The species has a particularly skittish nature that causes them to keep a distance from potential predators as they feed and rest, according to experts.

"The recent study . . . is critical to our understanding of potential impacts," said David Mizrahi, vice president of research at New Jersey Audubon.

"Not only does it demonstrate that activities associated with tending oyster racks and bags can prevent red knots from using preferred feeding areas, but clearly shows that the structures themselves can exclude knots as well," Mizrahi said.

Elsewhere along the Shore, the state already restricts human access to other beaches where the horseshoe crabs spawn during the migration and staging period annually from May 7 to June 7. The study suggests that some additional access restrictions should be imposed along the area where the oyster aquaculture is being conducted.

But industry experts contend more research should be done - and conducted by outside consultants - before additional permit restrictions are put into place and expansion of the industry becomes limited.

'Agenda-driven'

"Potentially, they are talking about killing an industry that's got so much going for it," said Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, a Maine-to-Florida group of 1,000 shellfish farmers.

"We think this is a very agenda-driven study that certainly needs to be reviewed closely before any decisions are made," Rheault said. "If I was to present a study that said everything was rosy and there were absolutely no impacts on the red knots and horseshoe crabs, a lot of people would have a lot of questions about that. All we are saying is that we need to see an objective third party - without a horse in the race, so to speak - take a look at this before any regulations are imposed."

Limiting access to their "crops" could potentially ruin the investments made by the aqua-farmers.

"You are talking about decades of work and investment here to bring the industry to where it is today after a lot of knocks," Rheault said.

jurgo@phillynews.com

609-652-8382 @JacquelineUrgo