DEP DIRECTS RESEARCH GROUP TO REMOVE
SHELLFISH OPERATION FROM TAINTED WATERS
(10/P69) TRENTON -The Department of Environmental Protection today issued a notice of violation to the NY/NJ Baykeeper, directing the nonprofit group to remove its research-related shellfish project from contaminated state waters to protect the public health and the state’s $790-million-a-year shellfish industry.
The DEP took this action only after the Baykeeper declined to comply with a previous written request from Department to follow its permit requirements and remove its shellfish operation from the waters of New York Harbor. The notice gives the Baykeeper 24 hours to advise the Department on whether it will remove the shellfish.
“We have a high regard for research work done on shellfish by the Baykeeper,’’ said Commissioner Bob Martin. “But there is a lot more at stake here. We cannot jeopardize an entire, nationally recognized industry, with its many hundreds of jobs and great economic value to this state. We have an obligation to safeguard the public health. It’s a necessity that the Baykeeper stop operating in tainted waters.’’
“We do not want contaminated oysters or clams getting into the public food supply. If someone gets sick from eating shellfish from contaminated waters, people may stop buying or eating New Jersey products or shellfish from approved waters. It could severely hurt the industry.’’
The State is striving to comply with U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations requiring regularly scheduled law enforcement patrols in areas where shellfish exist in polluted waters to ensure the state’s commercial industry does not face sanctions or closure.
A recent DEP inspection of the Baykeeper’s oyster project in the waters at Keyport Harbor found that of the sampling of oysters removed from the group’s removable reef structures at least 20 percent were at or near-market size, which is established at 2.5 inches. These oysters, which would be prime for poaching, are being grown in waters prohibited for shellfishing due to poor quality, which could jeopardize the state’s rating with the FDA.
“We have sought to work cooperatively with the Baykeeper, to give the group adequate time to remove oysters it is growing in contaminated waters, and have also offered to help the group find non-commercial species of shellfish to grow and new waters in which to grow them,’’ said Commissioner Martin. “But they have declined to cooperate and left us no choice but to issue a legal notice to them.’’
The Commissioner said he intends to revamp the state’s long-term shellfish restoration and gardening rules, and announced the DEP will not issue new permits for restoration of or gardening of commercial shellfish, even for ecological restoration projects, in prohibited or restricted waters.
The purpose is to minimize the possible negative impact to New Jersey’s $790-million-a-year shellfish industry, which could be severely damaged by an illness outbreak related to gardened or restored shellfish raised in research or educational projects.
He stressed that 80 percent of the state’s coastal waters are safe for shellfishing.
Primary growers of shellfish in tainted or seasonally approved waters are environmental organizations, which are involved in legitimate scientific and educational efforts. In those endeavors, a variety of commercial shellfish, including oysters, hard clams and blue mussels, are grown for study purposes. However, poachers could target those locations and steal the shellfish, which then could be sold to consumers.
The DEP makes about 60 arrests annually of illegal harvesters or poachers in restricted waters, primarily in the New York/New Jersey harbor and Raritan Bay. But the department does not have resources to adequately patrol these areas where new shellfish are placed in restricted waters, leaving them open to poachers, which is a concern to the FDA, which has strict requirements for patrolling the waters.
DEP needs to be in compliance with those rules and is now rebuilding its patrol team to meet those needs in commercially fished areas, even in tough budget times. The FDA has stressed to the DEP that using volunteer patrols or even State Police surveillance is unacceptable. Proper patrols require certified, specially trained personnel.