Written by Adam Binder
The mission to repopulate Barnegat Bay’s clam colonies will take a long time—and it has to start with public awareness. Reclam the Bay (RCTB) is a local nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the environmental benefits of shellfish filtering, feeding, and cleaning of this important LBI estuary.
Originally inspired by Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Ocean County, RCTB works closely with Barnegat Bay Shellfish Restoration Program (BBSRP) to boost the shellfish population through education and maintaining clam and oyster nurseries or upwellers throughout Ocean and Monmouth County.
What is RCTB and what do they do?
Since obtaining nonprofit status in 2005, the organization has grown its volunteer base from just a few individuals to many interested locals and organizations. These include Certified Shellfish Gardeners, residents, and other practical volunteers who clean and maintain multiple upwellers where the clams and oysters can grow in a safe, protected environment. Initial volunteers constructed all the upwellers, and over the years that number has expanded to 8 or 9 upwellers in operation in at any given time.
In 2015, RCTB made the strategic decision to broaden its horizons by beginning to nurture baby scallops in their upwellers. According to Rick Bushnell, president of RCTB and a Certified Shellfish Gardener, “Although the bay scallops are finicky little creatures, we successfully produced 4,000-5,000 of the shellfish in 2016 and project we’ll produce even more in 2017.”
Why is repopulating the Bay necessary?
The shellfish population is significantly reduced compared to that of Bushnell’s childhood. This has a great impact on Mother Nature’s delicate balance—large amounts of nitrogen have seeped into the bay from various sources such as fertilizers, soil runoff, and storm water runoff from roads and parking lots.
Excess nitrogen stimulates the growth of algae, making the bay water dark and murky. This limits the sunlight that penetrates the water and inhibits the growth of eelgrass, which is extremely important as it acts as an incubator for baby clams, fin fish, and other shellfish.
“Shellfish are like the canary in the coal mine,” explains Bushnell. “A decrease in their population is a sign that something is wrong, that things are out of balance.”
Shellfish are filter feeders: as they eat, they filter the water. This helps clean the Bay, but humans must help too by reducing the amount of nitrogen that goes into it. Too much nitrogen equals too much algae, resulting in less sunlight and eelgrass, ultimately reducing the baby shellfish population which contributes to cleaning of the Bay.
These small creatures are an important part of the Bay’s food chain. A decrease in their population causes a ripple effect throughout other populations in the Bay, directly affecting those of us on the shore. Fewer shellfish means less fishing, fewer jobs, and increased seafood prices.
Restoration through education
While the upwellers produce upwards of a million shellfish each year, only a small percentage of them survive to maturity. Many more need to be nurtured and released into the Bay before their numbers will be sufficient to successfully repopulate on their own.
In addition to being shellfish nurseries, the upwellers are an educational opportunity for the public. Individuals volunteering for RCTB or who attend their outreach events often ask pointed questions about the shellfish: How do they reproduce?
Why do so many never reach maturity? What can the community do to help?
Bushnell explains that for RCTB, “All education begins with “why?” Educating the public is vital to their mission—helping people better understand the Bay, water quality, and the impact their lifestyles have on the estuary is key to working toward a solution.
Bushnell’s passion for RCTB is obvious and based on personal experiences. “As a kid, I always came to LBI with my family. I enjoyed being on and around the Bay,” he explains. “It was fun and the Bay was full of clams. I want my grandchildren and their children to have the same opportunity to enjoy it the way I did.”
To learn more about RCTB, their outreach and education activities, and how to get involved visit reclamthebay.org.