Oysters: Nature’s Protectors

Often associated with luxurious meals and fine jewelry, the oyster is more than just a slurpable delicacy or maker of pearls. Known for being a “keystone species,” these mighty bivalves positively affect their environment by providing habitat for commercially and recreationally important species such as striped bass and flounder. As filter feeders, oysters act as natural water cleansers removing suspended sediments, nutrients, pollutants, and algae from the water. Now oysters and the reefs they create are protecting our homes, businesses, and infrastructure.

Oysters once thrived in the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary, covering bay bottom from Sandy Hook to Liberty Island (also known as Oyster Island), until overharvesting and pollution led to their demise. Today, there is no longer a sustainable oyster population in this region, which is why NY/NJ Baykeeper (Baykeeper) has been dedicated to restoring this important species over the last 20 years.

Baykeeper founder Andy Willner knew that as water quality improved oysters could make a comeback, not as hors d’oeuvres, but as the ecosystem superstars they are. In 1999, Baykeeper used an old fireboat to place tons of oyster and clamshell next to the Statue of Liberty hoping the hard substrate might attract any residual oyster spat. Although strong currents dispersed the shell pile, an Oyster Revival had begun. As oyster restoration pioneers and bi-state leaders, Baykeeper would go on to plant 3.5 million oysters at multiple reef sites in NY and NJ, including Keyport Harbor and the Navesink and Bronx Rivers.

Progress was jeopardized in 2010 when the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection banned all shellfish research, restoration, and education activities in waters deemed too contaminated. Naval Weapons Station Earle (NWSE) in Middletown, Monmouth County, NJ, swiftly came to the rescue  – providing secured property, guidance, and support for Baykeeper’s restoration activities ever since.

Just as Baykeeper was getting back in the oyster game at NWSE, Superstorm Sandy delivered her blow, spurring Baykeeper’s next phase of research. The NJ Raritan Bayshore was hit hard, and it became apparent that areas with “softer” shorelines such as dunes fared much better than areas with walls and bulkheads. The hard-edge engineering approach so often employed in protecting developed areas from storm surge and flooding can have detrimental effects on nearshore habitats and marine species. Integrating living, natural materials allows the shoreline to continuously grow, enhancing stability and dampening wave energies that lead to beach and sediment erosion.

Having already established an oyster research site and aquaculture facility at NWSE, Baykeeper expanded its efforts to the adjacent Ware Creek marsh. In 2016, Baykeeper and partners installed a first of its kind urban living shoreline consisting of an artificial reef built with live oysters and concrete structures, known as oyster castles. This climate adaptation approach will protect the eroding Ware Creek marsh and shoreline by increasing sedimentation rates and dampening storm energies.

Baykeeper’s research on the oyster’s role in shoreline resiliency at NWSE is compatible with the US Navy’s efforts in addressing sea level rise and coastal protection. Living shorelines are part of the Navy’s resiliency arsenal to protect military infrastructure along the coast, including at the NWSE pier complex in Raritan Bay.

Research at the NWSE Living Shoreline site has already yielded important results. Data indicates adding 3-dimensional habitat in the form of oyster castles increases local biodiversity and supports the growth of many types of fouling organisms. Setting the castles with juvenile oysters further increases habitat and attracts reef-associated species.

Living Shorelines are rightfully gaining greater recognition, especially by state and federal agencies. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., who champions NJ’s Raritan Bayshore, recently introduced to Congress the Living Shorelines Act, to provide federal grants to coastal communities that employ these cost-effective, sustainable structures that take advantage of oyster reefs and wetlands plants.

As Baykeeper prepares to start its 2019 field season, living shoreline and oyster research will continue at NWSE, furthering shoreline protection and habitat building efforts in Raritan Bay, while developing techniques that are transferrable to other urban estuaries.