News Feature | October 9, 2015

New Jersey Turns To Oysters For Pollution Help

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

New Jersey residents may order up another round of oysters. The state is considering the possibility of allying with these tiny creatures in the fight against water pollution.

“New Jersey wants another year to decide one of its most intractable environmental issues: whether to allow experimental oyster colonies in polluted areas to see if they can help clean the waterways. The research is designed to see if re-establishing oysters in areas like the Raritan Bay can help improve water quality by using their natural filtering techniques.,” CTV News reported.

New Jersey has tried this avenue in the past, but policymakers suspended the research five years ago because poachers were stealing the oysters and selling them, which could be dangerous for those who wind up with research oysters on their plates.

“The bad publicity from an outbreak of oyster-related illness could devastate New Jersey's $800 million shellfish industry,” the report said.

In September, the state came closer to a decision on this issue.

“The state Senate passed a bill last week that would give the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection another year to issue regulations for experimental oyster plots. It also would require the permit holders to certify that the shellfish beds are not visible or easily accessible to the public,” the report said.

DEP spokesman Bob Considine said safety is a top priority. "Our goal is to provide clearer standards for the shellfish industry to keep it vibrant while also ensuring health and safety are protected," he said.

How do oysters clean up the waterways? Discovery News explained: “These useful creatures serve as tiny water filtration systems, constantly sieving the water around them in their hunt for a meal of bacteria or microscopic algae known as phytoplankton. As they filter water, the bivalves' tissues absorb some of the chemicals and pathogens that are present — things like herbicides, pharmaceuticals and flame retardants.”

That said, there is only so much the tiny creatures can do. “While oysters are known to be one of nature’s best natural filters, new research suggests there are limits to how much pollution they can clean up. In fact, some of the nation’s estuaries are so overwhelmed with excess fertilizer that it would take more oysters than the bays can hold in order to purify the water,” The Huntsville Times reported.

For similar stories, visit Water Online’s Source Water Contamination Solutions Center.