Creating an Oyster Reef in Barnegat Bay

By Lauren Wanko

In a massive swoop, tens of thousands of whelk shells are loaded onto a barge in the Barnegat Bay.

“We saw that the whelk is a really resilient shell. It’s Jersey tough,” said Capt. Al Modjeski.

The American Littoral Society is using 120 cubic yards of the shell to create an oyster reef in the Bay near Good Luck Point in Berkeley Township. The team already laid the foundation for the reef using crushed shells a couple years ago.

“The shell acts as a more multi-dimensional kind of substrate so what it has is has little nooks and crannies like an English muffin where little critters can hide inside of it and another place where oysters and other organisms can attach to. So we’re not just planning for oysters, we’re planning fish, we’re planning crabs, we’re planning a whole ecosystem,” Modjeski said.

Under water the shells will interlock.

“It’s just a natural way they will fall so that it’s like a puzzle,” said Megan Molok of the American Littoral Society.

After every shell was loaded on the barge, we climbed on board Monmouth University’s research vessel and headed to the reef site where the thousands of shells landed in their new home about five feet under water. The reef will only be about six inches high.

“By creating that type of real estate, we’re promoting resiliency of biological communities and that in turn are gonna promote resiliency of the economy,” said Modjeski.

“The economics has been a real downturn since Superstorm Sandy so projects like this are definitely gonna help the local economy,” said Berkeley Township Mayor Carmen Amato.

“We’re creating that ecosystem that was here for centuries before us, before we came and for decades now that’s been gone,” Modjeski said.

Modjeski says that’s due to over development, changes in water quality and over fishing. He hopes the reef will one day become a natural setting for wild oysters to thrive. Meantime, the society’s trying to jump start the process.

The American Littoral Society purchased a spat tank — spat are baby oysters. A team will place bagged shells in a tank, seed them with oyster larva. Then you’re left with spat on a shell. The goal is to eventually place those shells in the reef.

The project’s funded by NOAA and Restore America’s Estuaries.

“This is a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection through the shellfish bureau working with them. This is one of the sites they have permitted for doing restoration and we were able to team with them and partner,” Modjeski said.

The shells came from a local oyster company near the Delaware Bay.

“One of the things we’re trying to show here with this shell particularly is will it work for predators to deter some predators like the cow nose ray which loves to eat little oyster. So if we can show that this is as a better substrate then the clam, we’re on our way to restoring the health of the Bay. We want to see Barnegat Bay smile,” Modjeski said.

The American Littoral Society will continue to monitor the reef throughout the summer.