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Center aims to return state to its aquacultural glory

By RICHARD SKELLY
AFP Correspondent

NORTH CAPE MAY (July 1, 2017) — Not unlike the New Brunswick main campus of Rutgers University’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, researchers at the Rutgers Aquaculture Innovation Center wear many different hats and tend to many projects simultaneously.
However, the bulk of resources and research time here at the Aquaculture Center is put into re-growing New Jersey’s once-glorious, celebrated oyster industry.
Sean Towers is an algal culture specialist who works as research coordinator at the Aquaculture Innovation Center.
He works closely with David Jones, the operations manager. Both employees report to Mike DeLuca, who splits his time between the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers’ SEBS and other research stations in southern New Jersey.
“I keep an eye on all the research projects going on here and help to coordinate all of it,” Towers, a recent graduate of Stockton University, said. Prior to this post, Towers worked in the private sector for a time in Woodbine growing fresh water, single celled algae for high value nutraceuticals.
“We’re the only operational oyster hatchery in New Jersey right now,” he said. “We mainly work with a line of oysters that was developed by Rutgers, and was bred purposely for Delaware Bay waters.”
With so many people looking for local food these days, Towers argued: Why not local oysters? The local food movement is not just about sustenance anymore, he said.
“You want flavor and being able to enjoy that experience, and with oysters, they gain all of their flavor from the water they’re grown in. All of the oysters we sell out of this building are all pretty much a single strain. Depending on where they’re grown, they all taste different,” he said.
“For several years our focus has been on rebuilding the oyster industry. The Delaware Bay and the southern shore of New Jersey was once the epicenter of the oyster industry in the world,” Towers said.
Issues with disease in the oyster population in the Delaware Bay hit hard in the 1920’s, and after decades of water pollution from industry, the oyster industry never fully recovered.
But Towers said that’s changing. “The sheer numbers of oysters coming out of these waters would rival that of any place in the world,” he said.
Rutgers began a shellfish breeding program in 1960. The initial breeding program was established by Dr. Harold Haskin, and a lab is named after him today in Bivalve, on the Delaware Bay.
Towers, Jones, Matt Neuman, Josh Kiernan and Devon Shoemaker, all at the Aquaculture Innovation Center, work closely with Haskin Shellfish Research Lab, the Cape Shore Lab near the Delaware Bay and another Rutgers lab in Tuckerton, along the southern New Jersey Shore.
The Aquaculture Innovation Center opened in 2008 and was fully operational in 2010.
“It hasn’t been around that long,” said operations manager Jones, “but in our time we’ve done a lot with the oyster industry. Almost every New Jersey bred oyster comes from our hatchery right now.”
The oysters at the center are bred to environmental conditions here, the salinity and the temperatures, and disease resistance, Towers said.
“This year we’re poised to provide between 10 and 15 million oysters to farmers in the industry and another 10 million oysters for larvae for restoration projects and research,” he added,
Towers and Jones said in the last two or three years, there’s been a huge increase in the number of would-be oyster farmers around the Delaware Bay, which, like Lower New York Harbor and its estuaries, has improved in water quality.
“I wouldn’t call these people oyster farmers just yet, but they’re interested in getting their permits from the state so they can see how well they can do.”
Just like farming the land, growing oysters is very labor-intensive work, Towers and Jones stressed.
“They’re all kept in bags in the bay and a lot of the farmers are working inter-tidally,” Towers said, “almost every day you have to be out there at low tide to spray mud and worms and algae off of them.”
If the oysters get clumped in mud they can suffocate and die, so oyster farmers have to constantly monitor their respective farms.
“You constantly have to be opening the mesh bags and sorting everything. You have to continually thin your crop out as the oysters grow, so it’s a lot of physical labor to be an oyster farmer.” 
In New Jersey, mostly clustered around the Delaware Bay right now, Towers estimated there are between 10 and 15 active oyster farmers. A few are working in Barnegat Bay. 
“We’re not meant to be a commercial hatchery,” Towers said. “We are a research center that can improve upon and perfect oyster raising techniques, and pass those ideas along to the industry.”