New Jersey Farmer

Parsons, other seafood farmers have different regulation hoops to clear



Dale Parsons said he is grateful for the state’s Aquaculture Act, passed in March last year, as it amounts to stronger regulations for those who harvest from the Barnegat Bay. (Photo by Richard Skelly)

TUCKERTON — Like any responsible vegetable or fruit grower looking after his or her acreage, seafood man Dale Parsons takes his role as a steward of the Barnegat Bay seriously.
Parsons is a fifth generation clam and oyster farmer. A visit to his Parsons Seafood Shop on South Green Street shows visitors just how transparent his operation is.
On one side are clam and oyster sorting machines and on the other is a retail seafood counter so customers can watch the shellfish being sorted and those with party orders for 80 or 100 pounds of clams can be efficiently accommodated.
“During the winter, the amount of clams and oysters we harvest slows down, but we’re busy year-round, just not necessarily busy with sales of clams,” manager Mike Joannides said while running the clam sorting machine.
He also demonstrates the difference between shucking clams and oysters and the different types of knives involved in each process.
“Oysters don’t weigh as much as clams. Clams are around 80 pounds in a basket, oysters maybe 40 pounds,” he said. “With oysters, everything is hand-sorted and hand-counted.” With clams, sorting machines do much of the work.
“Like any other farming operation it changes from month to month and season to season,” Parsons said. “When the water is cold and business is slow, we work on equipment maintenance. We spend our time repairing gear, and it’s very different from the overwhelming week-to-week harvesting to meet demand for clams and oysters during summer months.”
Parsons noted new right-to-farm regulations for clam and oyster harvesters were just passed in New Jersey.
“Just imagine the real estate to farm is a fraction of the size [of land farmers,] and you’re dealing with developers and user conflicts for waterfront properties,” he said. “To farm on the water…you’re dealing with a much smaller footprint of available real estate, so we have a much higher prevalence of user conflicts.
“Outside of right-to-farm, there is no way to protect the farmer’s livelihood against someone with deep pockets who can buy whatever they want. Without right-to-farm protections in place for the farmer, someone with more money, it doesn’t take much in the aquaculture industry to come along and buy a neighboring property, and just put you out of business. That’s been happening a lot.”
For his oyster and clam farming operation in and around the nearby Barnegat Bay, Parsons must maintain four sets of permits, a federal permit as well as permits from three separate state agencies.
“We’ve been asking for years to consolidate the three state permits under one roof, so a farmer doesn’t have to go and hunt for this one who represents this group and this one represents that group,” Parsons said. “Yet, it’s up to us as farmers to know who to go to and what to apply for in order to be a legal farmer in a water column in New Jersey.”
Most of Parsons’ farming of oysters and clams is done in Little Egg Harbor Bay while a handful of his operation is located in Greate Bay.
He or one of his crew are on the farm five days a week, checking on growth rates and the general health of the overall populations, and of course, harvesting during spring, summer and into the fall.
There are other clam farmers in the area he relies on and trusts when his retail stand is a little short on some type of shellfish, and most of his neighbors are involved in the New Jersey Shellfish Association.
Some, like Parsons and Brick Wenzel in nearby Lavalette, are also active with the New Jersey Farm Bureau.
Parsons said he is grateful for the state’s Aquaculture Act, passed in March last year, as it amounts to stronger regulations for those who harvest from the Barnegat Bay.
Parsons encourages all of his retail customers to bring their empty clam and oyster shells back to his store, and on the several acres he has in back, near the docks, stand several large piles of shells, all of which get thrown back into the surrounding waters to maintain future populations.
Parsons said the new Aquaculture Act protects clam farmers from nuisance complaints, “but we still have to abide by all the regular rules. It’s just now, people can’t arbitrarily complain about these things.”
Parsons said the myriad of state and federal regulations and the various agencies involved can be frustrating, “as the folks who write these regulations are not there to help you do your job, they are there to tell you what you cannot do.
A lot of people look at DEP and say they should be helping us do this, but that’s not really their job, their job is to tell you what you can and cannot do. Until that changes, that’s all we can expect.”
Parsons, who joined the family business as a fifth generation clam and oyster farmer, recently partnered with Stockton State University for a feasibility study with two different types of oysters.
“The project was sort of mocked and criticized because people believed that oysters would never survive in the bay, but they did,” Parsons said. “That’s an example of public perception and my frustration with public perceptions. In other words, the word of the Barnegat Bay shellfish farmer wasn’t good enough.”
Parsons employs a crew of four people on the bay at his clam and oyster farms and three on land. He said the satisfaction comes from praise from new and longtime customers of the retail store and working closely with his valued employees.
“I try to let everyone do a little bit of everything,” he said of his employees. He also finds satisfaction in being able to help other Barnegat Bay farmers out. He keeps these local farmers on speed dial, particularly during busy summer months.
“We’ve got to help each other out,” he said. “The trick is to have an agreement where both people benefit from being in the agreement, so it’s not one-sided. It’s not easy to do that all the time, but we make it happen.”

 

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