Oysters Rebound: The Revival of a Jersey Crop

A young entrepreneur brings his “blue thumb” to the revival of the Jersey oyster, a sustainable crop that cleans the water and, yes, tastes great.

The 13-week-olds in the palm of Matt Gregg's gloved hand will go to market next spring after they triple in size, to about three inches.
Photo by Eric Levin

Thirty yards behind Matt Gregg’s idling boat, a diamondback terrapin breaks the calm surface of Barnegat Bay and pokes its snout into the air.

“He wouldn’t have a reason to be here if not for the oyster beds,” Gregg observes. “He’s here to eat. That’s all that’s on his mind.”

The turtle has no interest in the oysters Gregg is growing in mesh bags that float on the surface of the bay just off Mantoloking. The turtle lusts after the juvenile crabs and tiny killifish drawn here by organisms lower on the food chain—things like sea squirts, worms, grass shrimp and tiny sponges that Gregg’s oysters have helped attract to this once desolate part of the northern bay.

In fact, the state would not have let Gregg establish his 40 North Oyster Farm in this particular spot if it had had any species diversity at all. “It was so choked with algae that it was almost like a desert, as far as aquatic life goes,” Gregg says. “That’s why it was approved for a farm.”

Algae is what oysters lust after. It’s all they eat, and they never tire of it. They suck in cloudy water, filter out the algae and other forms of phytoplankton and, with barely a pause, belch out crystal clear water. A juvenile oyster can filter 25 gallons of water a day, a three-inch-long adult twice as much. Cleaner water attracts small species that need to attach to something, like rocks or coral. Barring that, oyster shells, or the plastic mesh bags harboring those oysters, do nicely.

Clean water also lets sunlight penetrate the surface. In the shallow northern Barnegat, more sunlight reaching down will in time generate sheltering stands of eel grass that serve as playpens for baby fish. What you get in the end is known as an EFH, an Essential Fish Habitat, a kind of underwater utopia.

Oysters, take a bow.

Of course, that is only half the story. If humans didn’t lust after oysters the way terrapins lust after small creatures that lust after even smaller creatures that happily cozy up to oysters, well, it might just mean game over for estuaries like Barnegat Bay and certainly for entrepreneurs like Matt Gregg.

Gregg, 30, grew up in Avon-by-the-Sea, a Monmouth County borough of 347 acres surrounded by water on three sides—Sylvan Lake to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Shark River to the south. “In a small town like that, your parents let you out, trust the neighborhood,” says Gregg, the third of four children of a policeman and a mother “who did a bunch of stuff, but if you were to ask her, she would say she was a mother.”

“My playground was fishing in the lake and the river and surfing in the ocean,” he says. “My big interest was anything that had to do with the water.”

Gregg has dreamed of starting an oyster farm in the bay since his days at the University of Rhode Island. He majored in marine and coastal policy, minored in aquaculture and fisheries, and graduated in 2007. As a senior, he came across Mark Kurlansky’s book The Big Oyster.

“It argues that New York shouldn’t be called the Big Apple—apples come from overseas,” Gregg says. “It should be called the Big Oyster, because oysters existed in New York Harbor for ages. They were a staple in the diet for years and years until the industry finally collapsed from pollution and overharvesting. I never knew that. The book gave me a better understanding of the role of oysters in this area’s development.

That’s when this whole idea of calling the farm 40 North took shape.

“We grow the oysters at 40 degrees north latitude,” he explains. “It’s a large area, that one degree of latitude. It goes from Lavallette all the way to New York City. We want to be the local oyster. We don’t need to sell outside the New York/New Jersey area because there are so many people here.”

40 North, which seeded its first beds (meaning filled its first bags with babies) in 2011, is the northernmost aquaculture site on the Jersey Shore, but it is far from the first or the largest producer of oysters for what is called the half-shell trade.

Like New York Harbor, the New Jersey coastline once swarmed with oysters, fostering an industry that boomed until overfishing and parasitic shellfish diseases decimated oyster beds in the 1950s and again in the 1990s. A century ago, the Delaware Bay alone produced more than a million bushels of oysters a year. Statewide harvests fell to an annual average of 36,600 bushels in the 1990s, before the state imposed harvest quotas and the legislature, under Governor Christie Whitman, in 1997 created a shellfish aquaculture development plan. Over the last decade, the yield has averaged 72,000 bushels a year.

Oystering in New Jersey today is concentrated in the Delaware Bay, where more than a dozen growers of various sizes are active, the largest being Atlantic Capes Fisheries, which produces the Cape May Salt oyster. Further north, in Tuckerton, at the south end of Barnegat Bay, Parsons Seafood has been in business since 1909. In Port Republic, John Maxwell is the fifth generation of his family to cultivate and harvest wild oysters on the Mullica River.

Much credit for the rebound belongs to Rutgers, which has been studying oysters since it launched its first Agricultural Experiment Station in 1881. After the outbreak of MSX disease in 1957, Rutgers biologist Harold H. Haskin won fame and an entire industry’s gratitude by developing a disease-resistant species that is now grown from Maine to Florida.

“It didn’t get to be a commercially viable hatchery product until the mid- to late ’80s,” says Gef Flimlin, marine agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Toms River. By crossbreeding hardy specimens from different locations over many generations, the original disease-resistant strain keeps improving—“the way a mutt is often a lot stronger than a pedigree,” Flimlin says.

Whether you eat a Wellfleet, a Chincoteague, a Cape May Salt, a 40 North or any other Eastern Oyster, as the species is called, you are basically eating a disease-resistant Rutgers oyster. After Haskin retired in 1984, Rutgers named its Shellfish Research Laboratory in Port Norris for him, the first time the university had bestowed such an honor on a living person. Haskin died in 2002. Today, his daughter Betsy belongs to a grower’s cooperative in the Lower Delaware Bay and sells her oysters under the brand name Betsy’s Cape May Salts.

Nothing looks more harmless than a baby oyster. Several will fit in the palm of your hand. I notice, however, that Gregg pulls on heavy-duty waterproof gloves before he handles them. I ask why. “Baby oyster shells have edges as sharp as razor blades,” he tells me. “I touched one this morning before I put on gloves, I got a cut.”

There are certainly more dangerous and exhausting ways to pull a paycheck from the sea, and Gregg has tried them. In high school and college, he worked on commercial fishing boats. He ticks off a list: “Lobster boats, scallop boats, swordfish boats, cod, fluke, porgy, one to three days out. One summer I did offshore trips to Georges Bank, off Massachusetts. I saw species I’d never seen before—dolphins, whales, sea turtles. I caught fish I’d never seen on inshore boats. I’d never seen a cod. They get to be 50, 60 pounds.

“I really enjoyed it, and it’s good money, but the future is dismal. I don’t think a person in the world would disagree that you have to regulate a fishery in order for it to be sustainable. The National Marine Fisheries Service is charged with creating the regulations. It has to base those regulations on science. I think the problem is that the fishermen don’t trust the government to come up with accurate science.”

At a crossroads, Gregg looked into aquaculture. “I wanted something sustainable that I could really believe in,” he relates. “So cross out all the finfish species, because it requires inputs of feed, in some places antibiotics. But oyster aquaculture is completely sustainable because you don’t put anything into the environment except the oysters.”

What makes estuaries like Barnegat Bay a naturally happy home for bivalves is the confluence of seawater and freshwater, resulting in a salinity that, like Goldilocks in the baby bear’s bed, is just right.

The salinity of freshwater is close to zero. Salinity over 30 parts per thousand—as in the Mid- and North Atlantic—will eventually kill oysters. If salinity is too low, the oyster will lack its distinctive briny flavor and, as Gregg snipes dismissively, “Who wants to eat it?”

In his 10-acre plot just off the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, salinity ranges from 23 to 26 ppt in summer, rising to 26 to 28 in winter, when rainfall lessens and the oysters go dormant.

Gregg grows his oysters on the surface because they would suffocate on the muddy bottom, or at least end up covered in gunk. In the Delaware Bay, where the water is rougher, the tides extreme and the bottom hard, growers set their structures on the bay floor, which also shields them from the weather.

Ah, weather. Before 40 North could launch, Gregg had to weather a permitting process “with enough red tape to make you quit before you start.” He then raised $50,000 from a silent investor, enabling him to buy gear and a hatchery stock of infant oysters, known as seeds. Finally, on October 25, 2012, 40 North made its first sale—700 3-inchers to a local distributor.

Four days later, Superstorm Sandy slammed the coast. Scrambling ahead of the gale, Gregg and three helpers managed to sink his oyster-laden bags. “But Sandy destroyed our boat,” he says, “so we couldn’t get our gear back up. We eventually just paid somebody else to come out, but it was too late. The oysters got covered with mud and slowly died.”

Devastated, Gregg launched an online Kickstarter fundraising campaign that brought in about $10,000, little more than a down payment on a fresh start.

The campaign happened to catch the eye of veteran New York restaurateur Chris Cannon. Over the years, Cannon has owned five New York restaurants that each won three stars from the New York Times, most recently Marea. A Mountain Lakes resident, Cannon is transforming the long-vacant 1917 Vail Mansion in Morristown into a multi-concept restaurant to open next spring, called Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen. He had been enthusiastically researching Garden State farms, breweries and purveyors to supply the new restaurant.

“Jersey is seen as a backwater, but the more you look, the more you see great stuff here, and it still has so much more potential,” he says. “I love oyster bars. They’re inherently convivial places. I called Matt and said, ‘I think I can help you tremendously marketing your product in the city and make you the house oyster at Jockey Hollow.’” In August they signed a deal giving Cannon a 20 percent stake in 40 North and Gregg a much-needed cash infusion. It also gives Cannon a better price than the roughly 85-cent per oyster market rate.

“The passion Matt has for what he’s doing reminds me of me when I was his age,” says Cannon, 52. “I want to build a business with him.”

“I had a lot of people interested in investing,” says Gregg, “but given Chris’s record of success and everything he’s done in the industry, it just made the most sense.”

The task today in Gregg’s no-frills, 19-foot, one-time lobster boat is as simple and straightforward as its power source, a 50-horsepower Honda outboard. Back in August, he filled each of 100 plastic mesh bags with 1,300 roughly half-inch seeds—Rutgers-type babies hatched about 13 weeks earlier at a hatchery on Cape Cod. Today he’s about halfway through the six-week process called splitting—as the oysters double in size, the contents of one bag are split into two bags.

“Every oyster grower will admit that it’s extremely low-tech,” he says. “But you have to have what I call a blue thumb. You need to understand the water, the tides, the weather, deal with predators like blue crabs and drill snails and be somewhat mechanically savvy, because you’re dealing with a boat and structures that have to be moved around.”

When one cycle of splitting is done, it will soon be time to begin the next cycle. When the oysters reach two to three inches, they’re ready to eat.

If you gulp an oyster, you miss its flavor. Chew. What you taste is the equivalent of terroir, the flavors wine grapes sift from the soil. Oyster people like Rutgers’s Flimlin call it merroir, from mer, French for sea. How can all the many kinds of Eastern Oyster taste so different if they are all the same species? Merroir. Gregg has his eye on a site near Barnegat Inlet, about 20 miles south of his present lease. “If that’s approved,” he says, “those oysters will taste totally different from the ones I grow here.”

Next spring at Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, Cannon will be serving 40 North oysters. “It annoys me that restaurants charge $3 an oyster,” he says. “You can’t eat more than a few at that price.” His investment in 40 North will enable him to sell them for $1 apiece, weekdays from 4 to 6 pm.

Order a dozen, and skip the hot sauce. You’re tasting a very special slice of the Jersey Shore.

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