Barnegat Bay Oystering on the Big Screen

An entrancing documentary on the rise, fall and rebirth of oystering in Barnegat Bay lands a prize and sets up screenings.

The logo of the film.
The logo of the film.
Photo courtesy of the filmmakers.

Fresh off a win at last month’s Garden State Film Festival, director Corinne G. Ruff will screen “The Oyster Farmers,” her documentary about the revival of oystering in Barnegat Bay, at several Shore and other locations this spring and summer.

The 2017 film won Best Documentary in the Homegrown category, which requires that at least 75 percent of the content be shot in New Jersey. All of “The Oyster Farmers” was shot in state, mostly on the docks and waters of Barnegat Bay, where nine independent oyster growers have banded together in the last couple years to form the Oyster Collective.

In 2017, the collective sold about a million oysters. This year they expect to harvest and sell about 1.5-million, says Matt Gregg, who founded 40 North Oyster Company in 2011.

That may sound like a lot, but as the film points out, back in 1901, Tuckerton—a town on the southern end of the bay—hauled in 450,000 bushels of oysters. At about 100 oysters per bushel, that’s 45 million oysters. Then the harvests cratered.

Ruff, 47, who lives on Long Beach Island and by profession is a Delta Airlines pilot, wanted to find out why. A couple years ago, she holed herself up in the Beach Haven library’s museum section and dug into the past. A tale of pollution, overfishing, shellfish diseases, nuclear power waste, fertilizer runoff and more unfolded.

At the same time, she noticed this low sleek oyster boat with a red hull moving around the northern part of the bay. That was Matt Gregg’s boat. One thing led to another and Ruff wound up producing and directing “The Oyster Farmers.” It reaches back to the golden age of wild oysters on the bay, then forward through the depredations and into the present, pollution clean up and the new age of oyster farming.

This is not Ruff’s first film. Similarly shocked and disturbed after the devastation of Sandy, she produced “Landfall: The Eyes of Sandy,” about the efforts to unite and rebuild after the 2012 storm.

“I just stumbled on doing documentaries,” she says. In both cases, “The story was there, and it wouldn’t let me not do it.”

“The Oyster Farmers” has a lot going for it, not least the placid beauty of Barnegat Bay, even when it turns fierce in winter. It is also, even primarily, a story of family continuity. The film profiles not only Gregg, who grew up on the Shore, in Avon-by-the-Sea, but the Maxwell and Parsons families, who have been oystering and farming clams in the bay for many generations.

Baymen was always what they called themselves. Except now daughters are working side by side with fathers, doing just as much heavy lifting.

For generations, oystering in the bay was a hunter-gatherer phenomenon. Now it is aquaculture—of a kind that is not just kind to the environment but actually improves it.

Certain species of algae feed on pollutants and multiply in “blooms” that choke the water and block sunlight. Oysters, as the film explains, feed on algae. Happily gorging on it, they filter the water, removing the murk, allowing sunlight to penetrate, oxygenating the water and creating a healthy environment for the return of various natural plant and animal species.

In the film, the energy and passion of the oystering families is reflected in the support they’re getting from area restaurants such as Bistro 14, Mud City Crabhouse, the Old Causeway and others, which are selling quantities of Barnegat Collective oysters to enthusiastic slurpers.

What to do with the empty shells? Recycle! The last part of the film documents an effort to build a reef just off Tuckerton in the southern part of the bay by dumping mountains of shells there. Wild oysters and other forms of plant and animal life will, the theory goes, attach themselves to the shells and a new ecosystem will eventually emerge.

As Matt Gregg says in the film, “I like to think the Golden Age of oysters is before us and not behind us.”

“The Oyster Farmers” will eventually be available for streaming and purchase, but for now the 70-minute film must be caught at screenings. Tickets for the following can be purchased at theoysterfarmers.com:

April 15 – Princeton Environmental Film Festival, Princeton Public Library. FREE

April 28 – Asbury Park Music and Film Festival

May 5 – Cape May Film Society

June 3 – Tucker’s Restaurant in Beach Haven

June 24 – The Showroom Theater in Asbury Park

July 13 – Part of “Save Barnegat Bay” hosted by the Bayhead Yacht Club, Bayhead.

July 23-29 – New Hope Film Festival, New Hope, Pennsylvania.

Click here to leave a comment
Click to enlarge images
Read more Jersey Shore, Just For the Web articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.