- Associated Press - Sunday, January 26, 2014

NEPTUNE, N.J. (AP) - A concept to rebuild the historic oyster reefs of Raritan Bay could funnel a share of $1 billion in federal money into creating living breakwaters that would reduce the wave force from future storms.

But New Jersey may not share that opportunity.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has been adamantly opposed to planting oysters in public waters of Raritan Bay, and that stance is unchanged, even with the evolving offer of money from post-Sandy storm reconstruction grants.

“It can be done. That’s what’s so frustrating. We can’t even figure it out because we’re not allowed to do the research on other sites,” Meredith Comi told the Asbury Park Press (http://on.app.com/1fobkfA). She’s the oyster-restoration coordinator with the NY/NJ Baykeeper nonprofit group based in Keyport.

Oyster reefs won’t stop the elevated flood heights pouring into the harbor during storms. But computer modeling shows they could cut down wave height, thus reducing the battering on bayside communities, according to Philip Orton, a scientist at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken who researches physical oceanography and storm surges.

Baykeeper and Rutgers University researchers have a small experiment with 250,000 oysters at the Naval Weapons Station Earle pier in Middletown. This spring, they plan to move out to a quarter-acre plot on the bay bottom within the Navy-controlled security zone, Comi said. It’s a smaller project than Baykeeper’s earlier restoration effort off Keyport, which was shut down in 2010 by order of the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection.

The order came in reaction to a critical report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration - one of the national agencies regulating shellfish - that warned New Jersey had been falling behind in patrolling shellfish waters to prevent illegal harvests from polluted waters.

“There’s not been any change in policy,” said Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman. Nor, he said, has the agency been approached by the oyster reef designers, the SCAPE/Landscape Architecture group.

Baykeeper Executive Director Deborah Mans said she tried reopening a dialogue with the DEP, to no avail. Meanwhile, the group has been working on small-scale projects in New York waters.

“New York is allowing the projects to happen. They’re small and on a pilot scale, and they have the same concerns” with poaching and public health, Comi said. “They’re hesitant but the thing is, they’re willing to come to the table.”

The plan to grow oyster reefs as breakwaters in Raritan Bay is part of a program to come up with ways to bolster the defenses of the coast - one of 10 concepts chosen in November from 41 ideas in the Rebuild by Design competition, backed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

At the end of December, the oyster reef team visited the public Urban Assembly New York Harbor School on Governor’s Island. The public high school runs the Billion Oyster Project, a plan to restore oysters to New York Harbor over a 20-year period. So far, they have 7.5 million oysters on a 2.1-acre reef area in the harbor.

The competition can pick more than one winning project and there’s a chance all 10 could be completed, said Henk Ovink, who is running the program for HUD.

Ovink said the New Jersey ban on oystering in Raritan Bay already was taken into account when the idea was one of 10 chosen in November out of 41 concepts. “I don’t see a fight, rather a question,” he said.

A plan to monitor the reefs, in other words, would have to be worked out for the concept to succeed, Ovink said. Working through political snags like the one facing the Raritan Bay part of the oyster project is one exercise that Rebuild by Design is hoping to map out, he said.

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Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, http://www.app.com