State Approves Artificial Reefs for ResearchJohn BurtonIt didn’t go as far as environmental groups wanted, but recently approved state legislation may eventually allow for the return of manmade oyster reefs in some area waterways.“I would say it’s a very big win,” said Meredith Comi, oyster bed restoration project director for NY/NJ Baykeeper, about the bill passed by both chambers earlier this month – and more surprisingly for the environmental organization – signed into law.Senate Bill S-2617 and its accompanying Assembly legislation, A-3944, in the amended form approved in January, would have the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) establish guidelines for groups like Baykeeper, allowing them to erect manmade oyster reefs for research purposes in waterways that have been deemed contaminated.The DEP would have to have the guidelines in place by Sept. 2017, “and see if they can provide expanded research opportunities for our part of the state,” Comi said.The original bill would have overturned an approximately five-year prohibition on reefs that were established in the Keyport harbor and off Red Bank in the Navesink River because of the level of contaminants and overall water quality. As a compromise, lawmakers amended the bill allowing the DEP and environmental groups, opening the door for future reefs for research purposes. The final bill was amended to address DEP reservations and secure the signing of Gov. Chris Christie, who signed it into law shortly after passage.While it is not the complete overturn of the ban hoped for by Baykeeper, which erected the reefs in the Keyport and Navesink waters, “I would say it’s a huge path forward from where we were,” Comi said.Baykeeper continued its oyster restoration project in waters just off of U.S. Naval Weapons Station Earle, Middletown’s Leonardo section.“We support shellfish restoration as a means to improve water quality, restore diversity and protect our coastlines,” said DEP spokesman Lawrence Hajna. “But, at the same time, we have to be diligent in the protection of the shellfish industry” as well as adhering to federal regulations, Hajna continued.In 2008 NY/NJ Baykeeper had to dismantle its Red Bank reef-like structure, home to thousands of oysters the environmental organization had placed there. And in 2010 the DEP also ordered the one in Keyport Harbor, in the Raritan Bay, taken down and the oysters destroyed.Oyster beds had long been plentiful in local waterways, up until the early 20th century when development, commercialization, overharvesting and pollution led to the shellfish’s demise in the area. But environmentalists sought to reintroduce the fish, for research purposes, believing the fish and growing reefs serve as a natural filter and as a water break, removing contaminates and containing erosion.State representatives instituted the ban in waters with water quality classified as “restricted” and “prohibited” for shellfish harvesting. The fear, DEP officials had said, is that the locations could be subject to illegal harvesting, with contaminated seafood making its way into restaurants and people’s homes, endangering public health and the state’s more than $1 billion a year shellfish industry. Without sufficient manpower to police the beds, as required by the Federal Drug Administration, the only alternative was to destroy the beds and oysters, DEP representatives had said in the past.“We really are trying to strike a balance,” Hanja said.Baykeeper continues its work at Earle, given it’s a heavily protected federal site, Comi said. Indeed, the location has had “its most productive year,” Comi maintained, with her organization putting an additional 150,000 oysters at the site, and monitoring the project’s progress.But New Jersey remains “the most restrictive of all the states,” for this type of project, she believed. “That’s what’s so frustrating,” she acknowledged.Comi said similar projects are being done in the Chesapeake Bay and down to and in the Gulf of Mexico.Long term, Baykeeper group remains hopeful the program will eventually be fully reinstated. “I’m confident, we all are here, as we move forward along this path, eventually we’ll be out in the other waters again,” Comi said.