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Oyster Mystique

wirtten by Angela C. Andersen

Producer/Environmental Consultant with Jennifer Begonia

Just as every thumbprint is uniquely spiraled, layered with swirling lines that tell the identity of the person it belongs to, each oyster shell displays a mystique all its own. Sure, other lines swirl and layer over other shells, trees, and rocks, but oyster personality is so strong that very few shells closely resemble each other. Oysters display layers upon layers of growth, starting when their microscopic seed emerges from the free-swimming larval stage and lands erratically as spat on a hard substrate.

Once attached at about three weeks of life, oysters make feisty survivors. They are a tight-lipped crop anchored in the detritus and sand within the depths of the Bay, growing atop each other in an archipelago of shell-on-shell wrapping, bending, and layering, adding to their mystique with each new spurt. From east coast to west coast of the USA and within the region for our hometown hero, the Eastern Oyster, we find shells of curvaceous beauty, tending toward a bow shape, and showing hues of pewter and slate as well as the opaque, creamy, or chalky rough in varying degrees of thickness.

Here in the Bay, oysters farmers begin with Eastern Oyster seed and tend their crops with extreme care and attentiveness. Farms often layer oysters in cages to stave off predators and elevate the growing molluscs enough to enjoy regular, all-over baths of briny water. These efforts grow the shell and meat in a more uniform manner. Oysters are unique to their place and the liquid nursery where they spawn, so the power of the tide and a combination of fresh and salt water shape each oyster’s flavor. These might create noticeable differences within our watershed alone.

Appropriate surface material for attachment of oyster beds became harder and harder to find over recent

decades, and Bay oysters were not able to thrive as they once did. Now, viable oyster substrate is being (re)introduced in different areas in the Bay to promote oyster bed growth. Partnerships among the business, academic, and non-profit sectors are setting the stage for oysters in our Bay to make a full resurgence. A local restaurant that serves oysters, for example, may “recycle” empty shells back into specific locations within the Bay as part of a research project where farmers and scientists collaborate. Since oysters serve as living water filters, coastal engineers, and heroic habitat restorers, it’s lucky that—due to the work of many able hands—the oyster is on the cusp of recovery.

The Barnegat Bay/Little Egg Harbor estuary (“the Bay”) is a shallow estuary that is about 42 linear miles, with a 660 square mile watershed (a land area that drains into a water body). In the case of Barnegat Bay, it also makes up the whole of Ocean County’s political boundary, approximately. Seven main tributaries drain off of the watershed into the Bay, meeting the salty waters of the Atlantic Ocean, which enters through three ports: Beach Haven, Barnegat Light, and the Point Pleasant Canal. While we universally refer to the system as the Barnegat Bay, it is distinct in its composition, acidity, and salinity, depending on latitude.

The northern “true” Barnegat Bay is fed by the Point Pleasant Canal and runs the length of the northern-most island, past the mouth of the Toms River, Island Beach State Park, and the Barnegat Light Inlet. Manahawkin Bay is crossed by the Dorland Henderson Bridge in the central portion. Coming south, you enter the Little Egg Harbor that casts out the Beach Haven inlet at the southern terminus. Great Bay to the south is a system all its own at the mouth of the Mullica River watershed. The potential for oyster growth is quite different in each of these areas, as oyster farmers know.


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