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How New Jersey’s sustainable oyster fishery got that way

Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory on the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay assists one of two sustainable oyster fisheries on the East Coast.

How does a fishery become sustainable? In one case, location and a scientist’s personality have been key factors.

I’m talking about the oyster fishery on the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay. In August, I went on a weekend field trip with fellow members of the D.C. Science Writers Association to see various sides of the fishing industry in Cape May, N.J. This historic vacation town is also the fourth-largest fishing port in the nation, in terms of dollar value of landings. Fishermen brought in $80 million worth of fish and shellfish to the dock in 2008 – mostly shellfish such as clams and scallops.

Our first stop was the Rutgers University Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory on Delaware Bay, about 10 miles from Cape May. The New Jersey oyster fishery here is one of two sustainable oyster fisheries on the East Coast, the other being in Delaware (I assume in the Bay also). One reason oysters thrive here is the Bay’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean waters flush out the Bay with each tide, leaving the water turbid, or cloudy with silt. This cloudiness prevents grasses from growing on the bottom and sucking all the oxygen out of the water – a big problem in the Chesapeake Bay, where oysters have long been in decline.

The scientist whose personality helped make the fisher sustainable was Harold Haskin, who was head of the lab in the 1950s. In 1958 or so, he convinced New Jersey oystermen to stop overfishing the oysters. He had a good rapport with the oystermen and got them to agree to an experiment, in which they left some oyster beds along for two or three seasons. It turned out those beds produced more oysters than before, just like Haskin said they would. Haskin also created a breeding program that developed a strain of oysters highly resistant to MSX disease. Since about 1958, according to the lab, the fishery has been sustainable.

This is one example of how science, location and an influential scientist combined to create a sustainable fishery.

Dan Kulpinski

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