Raritan River Basin

“Living Shorelines” Can Fortify Our Coastlines …
A Solution at Work in New Jersey’s Raritan Bay
By Meredith Comi, Restoration Program Director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper

Keyport on Raritan Bay south shore at sunset. Photo: Alison M. Jones for No Water No Life

Note: NWNL has followed the process of returning oysters to the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary since 2011. We have heard:

– Dr. Beth Ravit, of Rutgers Environmental Science Dept, speak on Urban Oyster Restoration at the 2011 Raritan River Initiative Conference.

– A June 2011 TED Talk on “Oyster-tecture” by Kate Orff, who sees oysters as an “agent of urban change.”

– Progress reports from Governor’s Island “Billion Oyster Project” with its high-school volunteers working to raise oyster spats at the foot of Manhattan.

Dubbed “eco-engineers,” oysters are keystone species of our tidal estuaries. Within the microbial biology of our rivers, oysters could be called the charismatic, aquatic “mega-fauna.” They prodigiously filter their food thus reducing pollution and turbidity that hinders underwater growth of grasses and other organisms. The reef-like vertical towers of living oysters provide habitat for other organisms and stabilize our coastlines.

We thank Meredith Comi for writing the following for NWNL on the ecological services of these oysters, albeit not yet safe to eat.

Further Reading:

Kurlansky, Mark. The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. NY: Random House, 2007. This compelling history discusses the cultural, gastronomic and ecological influences of oysters, especially in New York City.

Orff, Kate. Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park. NY: Princeton Architecture Press, 2011. This renowned urban-restoration architect outlines the unrealized potentials for the coastal lands of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and New Jersey.

A “living wall” of oysters in the South Atlantic. Photo: Alison M. Jones for No Water No Life

AFTER Hurricane Sandy, it was clear that coastal resiliency had become an immediate priority. Thus, Baykeeper began an innovative project to determine if a “Living Shoreline” of oysters could stabilize eroding shorelines of the urban New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary. Perhaps they would simultaneously protect the surrounding environment, improve water quality, and create healthy aquatic habitats.

Oysters are powerful. They can filter and clean water, a much-needed service today. They can provide reef habitat for other sea creatures and improve resiliency to storm surge and erosion. Oysters once thrived in the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary — so much so that Ellis Island was previously called Little Oyster Island. However, over-harvesting, pollution and the sedimentation of reefs resulted in a sharp population decline. Today there is no longer a sustainable oyster population in the NY-NJ Harbor area; but NY/NJ Baykeeper is working to restore them. As a bi-state restoration leader, NY/NJ Baykeeper has had restoration projects in both NJ and NY waters.

“Oyster-keepers” in the Raritan Bay. Photo: NY/NJ Baykeeper

In mid-August, 2016, NY/NJ Baykeeper and its partners installed a first-of-its-kind urban “Living Shoreline” in northern New Jersey waters. Located in the Raritan Bay at the Naval Weapons Station Earle in Monmouth County, a new 0.91 acre Living Shoreline consists of an artificial reef, using live oysters. Known as “oyster castles,” these new concrete structures are meant to provide the needed hard surface on which oysters can attach and grow. These 137 castles with about 10,000 oyster larvae can thus begin to fortify and protect the Raritan Bayshore.

Oyster stabilization in the Mississippi River Delta. Photo: Alison M. Jones for No Water No Life

In 2010 the NJ Department of Environmental Protection banned all shellfish research, restoration and education activities in waters (1) deemed too contaminated or (2) “Restricted” or “Prohibited” for shellfish harvest. Thus earlier oyster reef projects in nearby Navesink River and Keyport Harbor had to be moved. At that point, the U.S. Navy and NY/NJ Baykeeper became “Living Shoreline” partners. The U.S. Navy at Naval Weapons Station Earle, with its non-accessible stretch of shoreline, provides protected property, guidance and valuable support for Baykeeper’s oyster restoration activities.

Additional restoration activities at Naval Weapons Station Earle include setting oysters at NY/NJ Baykeeper’s aquaculture facility near the mouth of Ware Creek, and monitoring the oysters and structures in the 1/4-acre experimental restoration plot to assess survival and growth.

Deposition of “oyster castles” into the Raritan Bay at NWS Earle. Photo: NY/NJ Baykeeper

NY/NJ Baykeeper has monitored this Living Shoreline twice since its August installation, finding that the oysters grew 22mm in just 2 months! Other organisms like sponges and algae are attached to the castles as well, further contributing to the Living Shoreline habitat. All the castles have stayed in place, even during the rough seas when Hurricane Hermine was off shore. This is a good sign of how the castles will hold up in the dynamic Raritan Bay.

This winter, oyster growth will become slower as the water becomes cooler. Since all the oysters are far enough under the water’s surface, they will be protected should the Bay freeze over. Come spring, this Living Shoreline will be expanded, adding more castles and oysters to the system. Meanwhile, NY/NJ Baykeeper continues its study of biodiversity and its collection of water quality data.

This article first published on NWNL Blog, November 29, 2016. — Posted on NWNL on November 30, 2016.