In the early 1900s, Barnegat Bay was laden with millions of oysters. Over time, the population dwindled due to over-harvesting, environmental changes and disease. Until fairly recently, the bay became a graveyard of what once was— it was where oysters went to die.
However, the last seven years have turned the page on this melancholic desolation. Thanks to a group of independent shellfish farmers and aquaculturists, the variety and abundance of oysters in Barnegat Bay has made a comeback. The Barnegat Oyster Collective is actively working to make New Jersey one of the hottest spots for oysters on the east coast once again.
What Is the Barnegat Oyster Collective?
The Barnegat Oyster Collective (BOC) handles marketing, logistics and distribution for 13 independent farms. BOC was started by Matt Gregg and Scott Lennox of Forty North Oyster Farms, who utilize a process known as intensive aquaculture to raise and maintain a sustainable oyster population in Barnegat Bay.
Intensive aquaculture is a restorative and efficient method of shellfish farming where the growth of a species is monitored under controlled conditions. This means that a farmer can raise seafood with the conditions necessary to produce healthy, disease-free fish and shellfish.
At BOC, this means spawning oysters on land in a controlled setting, then planting the baby oysters, called “oyster seeds,” in appropriate settings within the Barnegat Bay. This allows for shellfish farmers to manipulate characteristics including: shape, aesthetic, flavor and speed of growth. It also improves the likelihood that the oysters can grow free of disease— a crucial detail in maintaining an oyster population.
Since 1960, Rutgers University has been breeding oysters with these traits and characteristics in mind. Through cross-breeding and trait analysis, Rutgers has produced an oyster with over 60 years of disease-resistant lineage. The oysters produced have superior growth attributes and desirable quality of meat. Because of this, Rutgers has become crucial to the global aquaculture industry— with 30-50 percent of the Oyster production in the U.S. and France able to be traced back to the university.
This research and development produces an oyster that is genetically superior for Mid-Atlantic waters. They have strong resistance to disease, are high in yield and, ultimately, grow faster. This makes it the perfect candidate for BOC.
Scott Lennox and Matt Gregg met at the University of Rhode Island where Gregg in particular studied aquaculture. While studying at URI, Gregg was simultaneously working on an oyster farm where he fell in love with the process of shellfish farming and how environmentally crucial it was. Following his education, Gregg came back to Jersey to start Forty North Oyster Farms in Ocean County. Early on, Forty North was a one-man show— with harvesting, sales, deliveries and marketing done mostly by Gregg himself.
When Lennox came into the picture, the duo discussed ways in which they could educate others on oyster farming, restore the oyster population within the Garden State and, perhaps most importantly, uplift other oyster farmers with a living wage and growing business. Eventually, in 2016, the Barnegat Oyster Collective was born. The collective aimed to encourage food consciousness and to make New Jersey one of the great destinations for oysters anew.
Because oysters have a timetable once harvested, it is difficult for small farmers to reduce waste. However, with a collective, farmers can hone in on harvesting to order and leave the mystery of how much to harvest behind. Working directly with farmers and purveyors helps to cut down on the time between harvesting an oyster and it ending up shucked on your plate.
Delicious oysters were Gregg and Lennox’s goal, and the bonus from that is the simultaneous promotion of the health of New Jersey waters. Higher demand for oysters means more being spawned by farms— leading to better filtration and a healthier ecosystem altogether.
Why It’s Important
A substantial oyster population is about a lot more than just supplying happy hours with ample amounts of the bivalve. Oysters are crucial to preserving the environment in and around the bay because they filter the water simply by existing. An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day by removing excess algae within the bay— directly resulting in a healthier ecosystem.
With the native oyster disappearing, vegetation took a hit as well. Without oysters to filter the water, plants have a harder time growing and other species suffer as a result. “If you remove oysters from the system, well, the whole system collapses,” Gregg told me.
In New Jersey’s estuarine waters, this nightmare was becoming reality until the resurgence of oysters in the last half-decade. A specific plant known as submersed aquatic vegetation (SAV) eelgrass was collapsing before our eyes— a tragedy for a plethora of different species who rely on the SAV beds for a variety of reasons from shelter to food.
BOC still uses a native oyster, but their development is aided by the farmers. This help has led to oyster larvae populating every corner of the bay. As a result, we are now seeing oysters growing and thriving in areas that have been a wasteland for the species for the last half century.
Since beginning their work, BOC has revived SAV eelgrass and, thus, replenished the ecosystems within the Barnegat Bay that are so crucial to a benevolent environment for a multitude of species to grow and co-exist in.
Today, Barnegat Bay remains one of the most prolific habitats for eelgrass on the planet. Improved abundance of SAV beds means that the system is more habitable. In turn, oyster production can increase.
This past January, BOC planted over ten million oysters. Thanks to intensive aquaculture and the use of good oyster lineage, BOC is able to keep up with demand. Each week, they provide 200 restaurants and several wholesalers with 80,000 oysters combined.
80,000 oysters a week is an impressive feat no matter the area, but to think that Barnegat Bay’s oyster supply was all but extinct less than a decade ago makes it an accomplishment that is simply unfathomable.
The Future for The Barnegat Oyster Collective
Simply put, The Barnegat Oyster Collective aims to continue growing more oysters each year. Shellfish aquaculture is both sustainable and restorative— with the downsides being virtually nonexistent.
In order to do their job, which is crucial to the health of our land, even more efficiently, the BOC aims to gain protection under The Right to Farm Act. This act protects terrestrial farms from public and private nuisance actions, but currently, oyster and clam farms do not receive this protection in New Jersey. Along with protecting farmers, the act helps them to achieve economic viability.
With waterfront land disappearing, intervention is necessary. Land, sometimes, should be reserved for the best possible use and not just for the most lucrative use. As it stands, private investors are able to outbid shellfish farmers for land, even if that land is crucial to the health of our waters. The New Jersey Aquaculture Association, which Gregg is president of, hopes to persuade legislators to pass legislation that would guarantee responsible shellfish farmers the protections needed.
Let’s be honest, if there is one thing the shore does not need more of it is lifeless three story houses where people from out of state can come to spend a drunken weekend. Instead, we can keep the shellfish farms that both protect our land and supply small businesses with a great, local product. This union of oyster farms is fighting tooth-and-nail to obtain these protections, so call your representative and implore them to support adding clam and oyster farms to the Right to Farm Act.
Another great way to help the cause is simply by eating more Barnegat oysters— which doesn’t sound like too bad of a deal to me. You can order oysters and find which NJ restaurants source from the Barnegat Oyster Collective here.
About the Author/s
Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for food journalism midway through his schooling and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. Peter never stops learning and he is always in the weeds.