Cleaning Our Polluted Waters With Oysters — A Bill Awaits Governor Christie’s Signature. What of New York?

The New Jersey legislature has voted in favor of allowing oysters to be used to clean certain polluted waters in the state.   The bill sits now on Governor Christie’s desk.     Since 2010, it’s been illegal to plant oysters in polluted / uncertified waters.   The fear has been that people would harvest oysters from the polluted waters, and thus put at risk New Jersey’s $800 mil shellfishing industry.  An outbreak of shellfish poisoning would be an expensive one.

The bill takes this concern into account by stipulating that the oysters be introduced in waters that are difficult for the public to access.

As with New York Harbor’s Billion Oyster Project, the oysters will not only help to clean the polluted areas as ‘filter feeders,’ their hard shells and their reefs will improve coastal resiliency.

Here on Long Island, along The Great South Bay,  commercial oystering is picking up, though water quality, especially with the now annual brown tide, is a major challenge.   We’d love to be able to deploy oysters for environmental remediation in uncertified waters so as to improve the overall water quality in the bay and help this local industry come back,but that is illegal in New York as well, and for the same reason.   People would be tempted to harvest tainted oysters, endangering the public and the industry’s reputation.

Clearly, New York State needs similar legislation.   Prof. Jeff Levinton of Stony Brook University recently published a paper on oysters as a means of environmental remediation in The Great South Bay and Jamaica Bay.   He notes that while Jamaica Bay could have 47% percent of its nitrogen issues solved with 5,000 acres of oysters, you could never eat those oysters because of the industrial pollutants in the bay.   For The Great South Bay, 5000 acres of oysters would take care of 147% of the bay’s nitrogen issues and these oysters would be edible.  Here, the whole oyster industry could be revitalized some 80 years after the 1938 Hurricane aka The Long Island Express, which changed the bay bottom and the bay’s ecology drastically.

The typical yield of an acre of oysters is $100K.   5,000 acres would yield $500,000,000 annually and yield a healthy bay.   Obviously, there are costs, about $50,000 per acre, so putting that much under cultivation will require a significant investment, but one very well worth it it would seem.

The problem is that so long as using oysters in uncertified waters is illegal, it will be very hard to establish the foothold necessary.     We need a law like the one about to be passed in New Jersey, where we can raise the oysters in secure areas so that we can improve water quality and expand the area in The Great South Bay where oysters can flourish and where they can be safely harvested.  I’d add that such environmental remediation would also help our efforts to bring back the clams as well.

We need New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) on board with this.   It is imperative that we come to an acceptable agreement here.   There’s just too much upside for the bay and for The South Shore if oysters were employed at scale to address the bay’s water quality issues.