A year ago, crop farmers who farm in New Jersey’s swampy coastal inlets and tidal plains fought for survival.
Restaurants were shut down by the pandemic, and the oysters they had been growing for two years became past their best. The expensive seafood that had to be served in raw bars or at weddings was immersed in cages and shelves in Barnegat and Delaware bays, which the younger oysters harvest.
“When Covid was successful, the market disappeared,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. A non-profit organization dedicated to the study and conservation of marine life and habitats.
Some small aquaculture farmers in New York and New Jersey, who could not afford the boat fuel or next year’s seed, struggled to revive the country’s former oyster market.
But a year later, at long last, the industry is ready for a summer boom.
As restaurants are now free of occupancy limits as the coronavirus outbreak eases and states lift most restrictions, sales are fast, producers said.
“It’s going to be a tough year,” said Scott Lennox, founder of the Barnegat Oyster Collective, which is sold to restaurants across the New York area and has seen sales drop 40 percent after being shut down in March last year.
The turnaround stems at least in part from two repurchase programs for conservation and a range of silver liners: a robust Home delivery market, farms full of customers and an unexpectedly strong demand for other shellfish, such as the oysters’ easier cousin – the mussel.
An oyster mail order business that started the Barnegat group at the start of the pandemic is now being shipped to 48 states and is responsible for 20 percent of its sales, Mr. Lennox said.
At Cape May Salt Oyster Farms in South Jersey, the state’s largest aquaculture business, home delivery declined and restaurant orders ‘went through the roof,’ said manager Brian Harman.
“People are ready to spend their money and be adventurous and eat new things,” he said. “I think we turned the corner.”
Cape May Salt was opened in 1997 as one of the pioneers in the field of aquaculture, working in Delaware Bay with fishing companies harvesting wild oysters. Amid the icy interest in the oysters with diverse flavor profiles, New York is home to about 30 aquaculture producers, most of whom rent water packages from the state and produce oysters for the half-shell.
Despite the abundant coastline, the number of oyster farms in the region lags far behind states such as Virginia, Washington and Massachusetts, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
No region in the aquaculture industry was spared because the virus stalled indoor eateries. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scrambled to support producers, present grants which has helped farmers in several Northeastern states, including New Hampshire and Connecticut, and as far as Alabama.
Lisa Calvo, a marine scientist at Rutgers University who also farms oysters in Delaware Bay, wrote a grant proposal that led to the first repurchase program in New Jersey. Sixteen producers sold a total of 79,000 oysters for 65 cents apiece, resulting in a payday of about $ 3,200 each.
It helped. “A little more money in my pocket,” said Jordan LoPinto, a farmer at Tucker’s Island Shellfish, which operates in Barnegat Bay.
The purchased oysters, each of which can filter and clean 50 liters of water per day during their non-dormant months, were placed on existing coastal reefs in the fall. The addition of oysters to reefs enlarges the habitat for fish, adds a layer of resilience to the coast and helps clean up turbid water, said Steve Evert, who runs the Marine Field Station at Stockton University Marine, a reef in Barnegat Bay between Tuckerton and Beach Haven.
In a separate initiative, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Nature Conservancy are using a $ 2 million donation from an anonymous donor to raise a much larger repurchase program for producers in New York, New Jersey, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maryland and Washington.
Millions of oysters have been purchased and placed on off-shore sites, which offer a dual benefit: the protection of 3,000 jobs related to the industry in the seven states, while preserving the oysters’ ecological value.
“We’re trying out this new kind of new approach to recovery,” said Zack Greenberg, who helps run a marine conservation program at Pew. “But it was really about supporting oyster farmers.”
Cape May Salt sold 75,000 adult oysters to the program for about two-thirds of the mollusc’s typical market value, resulting in an addition of $ 36,000 in cash when the company needed it most.
“It was extremely helpful,” he said. Harman said.
At the same time, farmers were trying to find new places to sell their shellfish.
Fish stocks have flourished, says Dale Parsons, a fifth-generation bay catcher who runs Parsons Seafood, a Tuckerton, NJ-based company that grows mussels and oysters and participated in the Pew repurchase.
When oyster sales fell, he said, the sale of mussels, which require less expertise to open or cook, exploded. “The clam market was insanely busy,” he said. Parsons said.
Mr. Parsons, leading an unrelated lead oyster recovery program who use used shells donated by restaurants say predation is a possible downside of the buyback initiatives. The addition of mature oysters to an established reef can attract cownose rays that prey on shellfish, he said.
“If a few of them find it and start a nutrition frenzy, they are all home until the last waste is finished,” he said. Parsons said.
Officials with both repurchase programs said plans are underway to determine the oysters’ survival rate in the coming months.
Two centuries ago, the bays, harbors, and tidal rivers of New York and New Jersey were teeming with wild oysters shipped to restaurants in Paris and London and by shipping along the Erie Canal.
But the Nature Conservancy estimates that 85 percent of the oyster reefs in the world have disappeared today.
According to Pete Malinowski, executive director of the Billion Oyster Project, an education and restoration program founded in 2014 to repopulate New York, the oysters are now stressed by pollution, over-harvesting and disease, and are now becoming ‘functional’. extinct ‘. Harbor with oysters.
“We can measure immediate and almost immediate benefits,” he said. Malinowski said about the program, adding that by October it had successfully laid down 45 million oysters. “We only have 955 million to go.”
Since then, the group has laid down two million more, including 5,500 oysters planted on Governors Island before the memorial day through a nature conservation program, which supports Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration, or SOAR.
Me. Calvo, the Rutgers scientist, said she expects the repurchase model of the pandemic to become a permanent part of the region’s recovery efforts. In a recent survey, farmers said they hope to continue to donate or sell a portion of their largest, least desirable oysters as a way to pay for it in an environmentally friendly way – and possibly to reduce tax depreciation in to close, Calvo said. .
“I do not think it is one,” she said. “I think it’s going to be one of the positive things that comes out of this very challenging year.”