The state would lift a ban on pilot research projects to see if oysters can flourish and help clean up polluted waters off New Jersey under a bill now moving forward in the Legislature.
The measure stems from a five-year old dispute between the Department of Environmental Protection and conservationists over the prohibition, a decision that disrupted years of research activity conducted to see if newly planted oyster beds can help clean up those waters by filtering out pollution.
Beyond the narrow issue relating to experimental oyster projects, debate over the bill before the Senate Environment and Energy Committee raised questions as to whether cuts in the DEP’s inspection and enforcement program for shellfish beds could lead the federal government to close down harvesting of other species in contaminated waters.
DEP still opposes the bill, fearing that poachers will harvest the oysters and then sell them commercially, potentially causing customers to get ill, an argument disputed by Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen), the sponsor of the bill. He argued that the oysters were too small to be sold on the commercial market.
“We do have some concerns with the impact on the (seafood) industry,’’ said John Hazen, director of legal affairs for the DEP. The state’s seafood industry adds $1 billion to New Jersey’s economy annually.
Hazen said the agency does not have the resources to monitor the oyster beds, a problem that could jeopardize compliance with federal regulations. The DEP is proceeding with adopting new regulations to allow these projects to go forward, he added. But on Monday, the state readopted its existing shellfish rules without any changes, although the agency said a new rule to address the issue may be proposed later this year.
That did not assuage critics. In 2010, the agency told Debbie Mans, executive director of the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper organization, it would fix the problem. “It’s five years late,’’ she said. Her group had an oyster restoration program shut down by the DEP.
Mans and others faulted the DEP for consistently underfunding its shellfish program for years — a failure that could lead the Federal Drug Administration to rule the state out of compliance with inspection and enforcement.
“They can close down the seafood program in New Jersey,’’ said Scott Mackey, representing the Garden State Seafood Association. “That’s a concern to the industry.’’
Cardinale noted that is a possibility because of inadequate inspection of shellfish beds by the DEP. “We likewise don’t have adequate inspection for clams and crabs,’’ he said.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, claimed the problems arise from chronic underfunding for such program, noting the agency has 40 percent fewer conservation officers since the term of former Gov. Richard Codey. “What we have is a failure for government to function,’’ he said.
But Bill Wolfe, a former DEP employee, blamed part of the problem on a ballot question approved by voters last fall that diverted millions of dollars from the DEP’s budget for programs to monitor water quality and other resources.
“We’re running a threadbare approach threatening a $1 billion industry in the state,’’ he said.
The one pilot oyster-restoration program still ongoing involves planting the shellfish off the Navy pier at the Earle Naval Weapons station in Raritan Bay, where the service patrols the waters to prevent poaching.
“This kind of research is very beneficial,’’ said Cardinale, who added it could reap substantial economic benefits if it leads to restoration of oysters in the state’s waters.
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