THIRTY YARDS BEHIND Matt Gregg’s idling boat, a diamondback terrapin breaks the calm surface of Barnegat Bay and pokes
its snout into the air.
“He wouldn’t have a reason to be here if not for the oyster
beds,” Gregg observes. “He’s here to eat. That’s all that’s on his
The turtle has no interest in the oysters Gregg is growing
in mesh bags that float on the surface of the bay just off Man-
toloking. The turtle lusts after the juvenile crabs and tiny kil-
lifish drawn here by organisms lower on the food chain—things
like sea squirts, worms, grass shrimp and tiny sponges that
Gregg’s oysters have helped attract to this once desolate part
of the northern bay.
In fact, the state would not have let Gregg establish his 40
North Oyster Farm in this particular spot if it had had any spe-
cies diversity at all. “It was so choked with algae that it was
almost like a desert, as far as aquatic life goes,” Gregg says.
“That’s why it was approved for a farm.”
Algae is what oysters lust after. It’s all they eat, and they
never tire of it. They suck in cloudy water, filter out the algae
and other forms of phytoplankton and, with barely a pause,
belch out crystal clear water. A juvenile oyster can filter 25
gallons of water a day, a three-inch-long adult twice as much.
Cleaner water attracts small species that need to attach to
something, like rocks or coral. Barring that, oyster shells, or the
plastic mesh bags harboring those oysters, do nicely.
Clean water also lets sunlight penetrate the surface. In the
shallow northern Barnegat, more sunlight reaching down will
in time generate sheltering stands of eel grass that serve as
playpens for baby fish. What you get in the end is known as an
EFH, an Essential Fish Habitat, a kind of underwater utopia.
Oysters, take a bow.
Of course, that is only half the story. If humans didn’t lust
after oysters the way terrapins lust after small creatures that
lust after even smaller creatures that happily cozy up to oysters, well, it might just mean game over for estuaries like Barnegat Bay and certainly for entrepreneurs like Matt Gregg.
Gregg, 30, grew up in Avon-by-the-Sea, a Monmouth County borough of 347 acres surrounded by water on three sides—
A young entrepreneur brings his
“blue thumb” to the revival of the Jersey
oyster, a sustainable crop that cleans
the water and, yes, tastes great.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY ERIC LEVIN