swarmed with oysters, fostering an industry that boomed until
overfishing and parasitic shellfish diseases decimated oyster
beds in the 1950s and again in the 1990s. A century ago, the
Delaware Bay alone produced more than a million bushels of
oysters a year. Statewide harvests fell to an annual average of
36,600 bushels in the 1990s, before the state imposed harvest
quotas and the legislature, under Governor Christie Whitman,
in 1997 created a shellfish aquaculture development plan. Over
the last decade, the yield has averaged 72,000 bushels a year.
Oystering in New Jersey today is concentrated in the Delaware Bay, where more than a dozen growers of various sizes
are active, the largest being Atlantic Capes Fisheries, which
produces the Cape May Salt oyster. Further north, in Tuckerton, at the south end of Barnegat Bay, Parsons Seafood has
been in business since 1909. In Port Republic, John Maxwell is
the fifth generation of his family to cultivate and harvest wild
oysters on the Mullica River.
Much credit for the rebound belongs to Rutgers, which has
been studying oysters since it launched its first Agricultural
Experiment Station in 1881. After the outbreak of MSX disease
in 1957, Rutgers biologist Harold H. Haskin won fame and an
entire industry’s gratitude by developing a disease-resistant
species that is now grown from Maine to Florida.
“It didn’t get to be a commercially viable hatchery product until the mid- to late ’80s,” says Gef Flimlin, marine agent with the
Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Toms River. By crossbreeding
hardy specimens from different locations over many generations,
the original disease-resistant strain keeps improving—“the way a
mutt is often a lot stronger than a pedigree,” Flimlin says.
Whether you eat a Wellfleet, a Chincoteague, a Cape May
Salt, a 40 North or any other Eastern Oyster, as the species
is called, you are basically eating a disease-resistant Rutgers
oyster. After Haskin retired in 1984, Rutgers named its Shellfish Research Laboratory in Port Norris for him, the first time
the university had bestowed such an honor on a living person.
Haskin died in 2002. Today, his daughter Betsy belongs to a
grower’s cooperative in the Lower Delaware Bay and sells her
oysters under the brand name Betsy’s Cape May Salts.
NOTHING LOOKS MORE HARMLESS than a baby oyster. Several
will fit in the palm of your hand. I notice, however, that Gregg
pulls on heavy-duty waterproof gloves before he handles them.
I ask why. “Baby oyster shells have edges as sharp as razor
blades,” he tells me. “I touched one this morning before I put
on gloves, I got a cut.”
There are certainly more dangerous and
exhausting ways to pull a paycheck from the
sea, and Gregg has tried them. In high school
and college, he worked on commercial fishing
boats. He ticks off a list: “Lobster boats, scallop
boats, swordfish boats, cod, fluke, porgy, one
to three days out. One summer I did offshore
trips to Georges Bank, off Massachusetts. I
saw species I’d never seen before—dolphins,
whales, sea turtles. I caught fish I’d never seen
on inshore boats. I’d never seen a cod. They get
to be 50, 60 pounds.
“I really enjoyed it, and it’s good money,
but the future is dismal. I don’t think a person
in the world would disagree that you have to
regulate a fishery in order for it to be sustain-
able. The National Marine Fisheries Service is
charged with creating the regulations. It has to
base those regulations on science. I think the
problem is that the fishermen don’t trust the
government to come up with accurate science.”
What makes estuaries like Barnegat Bay a
naturally happy home for bivalves is the con-
fluence of seawater and freshwater, resulting
in a salinity that, like Goldilocks in the baby
bear’s bed, is just right.
The salinity of freshwater is close to zero.
Salinity over 30 parts per thousand—as in the
Mid- and North Atlantic—will eventually kill
oysters. If salinity is too low, the oyster will
lack its distinctive briny flavor and, as Gregg
snipes dismissively, “Who wants to eat it?”
Gregg grows his oysters on the surface
because they would suffocate on the muddy
bottom, or at least end up covered in gunk. In
the Delaware Bay, where the water is rough-
er, the tides extreme and the bottom hard,
growers set their structures on the bay floor,
which also shields them from the weather.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER: Suspended by pontoons,
a flotilla of oyster-laden bags basks in the sun. As
the oysters mature, they have to be divided into
more bags so they have room to keep growing, a
task Gregg, below left, and minority owner Chris
Cannon take on.