The COVID-19 pandemic has put a dent in the market for farmed oysters, which many people eat only at restaurants.
With eateries closed to all but takeout in the spring, and capacity restricted since then, farmer Betsy Haskin of Betsy’s Cape Shore Salts said her sales are down almost 50% for 2020.
The pandemic spurred a project to both help growers survive and buy live oysters for reef building projects, said Zack Greenberg of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to protect marine life on the East Coast. The reefs create habitat, clean the water and help absorb wave action for shoreline stabilization, he said.
With the help of $2 million from an anonymous donor, the foundation is working with the Nature Conservancy in seven states to buy about 5 million large oysters from farmers and “replant” them in the wild in reefs.
The Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration project is active in Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Washington.
On Wednesday, a half dozen oyster farmers delivered tens of thousands of oysters to the project at Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Research Lab in the Port Norris section of Commercial Township.
Betsy Haskin was one of them. She said she is a small grower — mostly a one-woman operation, though she gets help from her husband, Mark Schroer. She sold 10,000 oysters to the project, she said, and has about 100,000 in the water for next year. Larger farming operations have more than 1 million oysters in the water.
The facility is named for Betsy Haskin’s father, Harold, a Rutgers faculty member instrumental in starting a program to breed disease-resistant oysters in the 1950s. He is credited with helping the oyster industry recover from the MSX blight and other diseases that had decimated shellfish populations.
“It’s a wonderful thing ... a big boost,” Haskin, who sells mostly to wholesalers, said of the program. “For me to sell 10,000 oysters is a good month.”
Spring sales were decimated, and summer was better than expected, but still not a normal summer, she said.
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“It usually slows down a little bit after Labor Day,” Haskin said. “Then during the holiday season people want oysters.”
But this year, “that just isn’t happening,” she said.
So the sale to the reef project came at a good time, giving her normal holiday sales, she said.
Oysters are at their best this time of year, Haskin said, because as the water gets cold, they fatten up for winter.
“The program is generally structured to buy oversized, unmarketable product,” Greenberg said. “Growers can clear out product … and get ready for next season.”
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The 620,000 or so oysters purchased from New Jersey farmers will be used to build reefs along the Delaware Bay and in a couple of locations on the Atlantic Coast, he said.
In New Jersey, the groups are partnering with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association to make it all happen.
More than 20 growers across the state are selling their larger oysters to the project, Greenberg said.
The DEP helped identify reef sites, Greenberg said. No one at the DEP was available Wednesday to talk about its role in the project.
But in general, the location of oyster reefs is kept from the public, to prevent poaching and illegal selling of oysters. Oysters from reefs in polluted areas, there in part to help filter and clean the water, can sicken those who eat them.
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Bill Shadel, New Jersey coastal projects manager at The Nature Conservancy, said the oysters can survive for a few days out of the water in cold weather. But on Wednesday, those dropped off at the Haskin center were taken out on boats to a reef site in the mouth of the Maurice River.
“They are pretty hardy,” Shadel said. “They clam up and stay closed when out of the water so they don’t lose their moisture.”
On farms, the oysters live in the intertidal zone, where they are underwater much of the time, but when the tide goes out, they are exposed to the air for a time. That’s when farmers can clean them and do maintenance.
Earlier collections of purchased oysters were taken to reefs on the Atlantic Coast, he said, including one off Tuckerton.
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Purchases next week will be taken by boat directly from farms to other reef sites on the Delaware Bay, Shadel said.
It’s a two-year program, Greenberg said.
There are still plenty of oysters left on farms for eating, and people can buy directly from farms, Haskin said. She is in a cooperative with two other small sellers called the Cape May Oyster Cooperative.
“We opened some today on the dock. They are just so big, fat and beautiful,” Haskin said.