Rutgers-Led Project Will Buy 76,000 Oysters From Struggling Farmers

Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory researcher and oyster farmer Lisa Calvo discusses the new initiative.

A crew member unloads Stormy Bay Oysters from their off-bottom cage. Photo by Jay Rutkowski/ Cape May Salt Oyster Farms

Lisa Calvo grew up with a love for marine life and turned her passion into a career. While getting her masters degree at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Calvo worked on the Chesapeake Bay, helping with research specific to developing disease tolerant oysters.

After graduating, she returned to New Jersey as the Aquaculture Extension Program Coordinator at Rutgers–New Brunswick and works as a researcher in their Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory in Port Norris (Cumberland County). Also the owner of Sweet Amalia Oyster Farm near Cape May, Calvo saw firsthand how hard oyster farms were being hit during the pandemic and unable to sell to restaurants and wholesalers.

Earlier this month, Rutgers announced a new project that will buy 76,000 overgrown oysters from New Jersey farms and move them to local restoration sites, where undergraduates and graduate researchers will study them. The surplus of oysters that have outgrown the preferred raw bar cocktail size—caused by the shutdown of restaurants and indoor dining earlier this year—will be purchased for 65 cents a piece using money from a $70,000 grant from the NOAA Sea Grant Covid-19 Rapid Response Aquaculture Funding Opportunity.

We caught up with Calvo to ask about the project, who will be working on it, and how it can help the local environment.

TH: What is your background in marine science?
LC:  I was always interested in marine science from the time of a child. I’m one of those Jacques Cousteau inspired scientists, I just love that stuff. I studied at the University of Delaware and at the time of my graduation, Rutgers had just opened up a new facility for their Shellfish Research Laboratory, right on the Morris River at the heart of the oyster fishery.

TH: Is that how you got involved in academics and research?
LC: Having no background with oysters at all, I applied there for a job and they hired me. So I got an introduction to the world of shellfish research at that time. A lot of emphasis was on learning about the diseases that had decimated the oyster fishery in the late 1950s. So I worked on a variety of research projects relating to oyster disease and management of restructuring.

TH: What was the idea behind this oyster restoration project?
LC: Any oyster restoration project is to support a healthier environment, bring more oysters back into the bays and let them provide their ecological services. This one is a little bit different. The larger scale plantings and restoration projects that the state does all involve putting down shell, which serves as the settlement surface for oyster larvae to settle on. That’s a key necessity in the oyster’s life cycle. They settle down to the bottom and they look for this hard surface to glue themselves to.

TH: Is that the kind of thing you’ll be doing with the restoration project?
LC: We’re seeding areas with larger oysters, so there’s already this biomass there, with oysters that are reproductively active. They’ll be filtering more water and providing more substrate for other organisms. Shellfish growers have had a hard time selling products this year and we completely lost the spring season, which is a critical time for farms.

TH: How will this project help the local farmers you’re buying from?
LC: We’re looking to engage about 20 farmers in this project. And that’s probably about three quarters of the industry right now. Because these oysters are growing out of the market size, it’s not like they can hold them on the farm and sell them next year. They’re gonna be out of that market size-that ideal preferred market–so this just provides another outlet for those farmers. It’s not going to make anybody whole by any means, but it is going to put a little extra cash in their pocket.

TH: And owning an oyster farm yourself, I’m sure you know how important it is to support local farms and businesses.
LC: Owning the farm has helped in understanding all the ins and outs of oyster farming, how to provide better extension in terms of finding where the problems lie, finding solutions, and getting others to work on research to develop solutions to those problems. I think it’s absolutely critical that we look to appreciate our local products and try to help everyone through this challenging time.

TH: When will this project begin?
LC: We want to get these oysters off the hands of the farmers as soon as possible because they’re taking up space that’s needed for the next generation of oysters. We want to do the planting in the next two weeks. It was a rapid response funding opportunity in response to Covid, specifically for aquaculture from NOAA Sea Grant. They were on top of this right from the beginning, and to be able to ramp up a program and provide funding in such a short time frame is remarkable.

TH: What will restoring the oysters do to improve the local environment they are put in?
LC: The minute we concentrate those oysters in an area, they’re going to be providing ecological services. They’re going to be improving the water quality in the area, providing food and shelter for other commercially important finfish and recreationally important finfish.

They’ll increase the dimension of the bottom, so instead of just having a flat, sandy surface, now there’s lots of nooks and crannies. Places where juvenile fish can hide and places where crabs can crawl and feed. So the project is really supporting this very bio diverse habitat.

TH: Will the oysters be beneficial to the ecosystem all year or just in certain months?
LC: There’s going to be a living ecosystem component that will continue to contribute as long as the oysters live. The oysters will propagate, so, next summer, they’ll be spawning and releasing eggs that will develop into larvae. They’ll potentially re-work to create more oysters in that environment.

TH: Who else is working with you on this and where will the sites be located?
LC: We have some really significant project partners—New Jersey Sea Grant, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the Barnegat Bay Partnership, the Delaware Estuary and the Pew Charitable Trusts. And Stockton University is an important partner. They actually have a restoration site that they’ve been working on so one of our sites will be there. Then we’ll work with two traditional fishery sites that support tonging fishery and involves hand catching oysters.

TH: What is the main goal you hope to get out of this project?
LC: To create this opportunity for shellfish farmers and really serve them. And think about diversifying and creating this model where we’re appreciating oysters on the farm as ecologically important. And create an opportunity for the oysters that don’t make it to market—they can become beneficial in other ways for oyster farmers.

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