Once-extensive Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) reefs in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary (HRE) were destroyed almost a century ago as a result of human activities. However, because of improvements in water quality, the potential exists to reintroduce this ecologically extinct species to the ecosystem. For over a decade, New York/New Jersey Baykeeper has conducted oyster restoration activities in support of target ecological goals proposed in the HRE Comprehensive Restoration Plan (CRP). The critical research question is whether existing conditions at a proposed restoration site can actually support long-term Eastern Oyster survival. To determine the feasibility of restoring this native species in Keyport Harbor, New Jersey, juvenile oysters were placed in research field plots, and survivorship and growth were monitored. Data from the first reported oyster restoration research in the New Jersey (NJ) portion of the HRE indicate that oysters could indeed be reintroduced into the ecosystem. After 11 months in situ, research oyster survival rates as high as 60% were observed. Qualitative tissue observations indicated female oysters produced eggs that appeared normal and were ready for spawning. Biodiversity of species collected from the field plots was two- to threefold greater with adult research oysters present, suggesting that oysters increased the density and abundance of other marine species. Sediment deposition patterns indicated that the presence of oysters in support structures may reduce the degree of topographic relief caused by winter storm energies. The research ended abruptly on August 9, 2010, when New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection rescinded the project permit because of concerns that research oysters were beginning to reach New Jersey's market size of 2.5 inches. Although initial data suggest that oysters can survive and reproduce in Raritan Bay and the potential exists to achieve oyster restoration goals included in the CRP, the project also highlights the current lack of agreement between shellfishery regulators and restoration practitioners with respect to oyster reintroduction in waters where shellfish harvesting is currently prohibited. Different shellfish management approaches are used in New England states (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut), where local control is an important management tool, and in Chesapeake Bay states (Maryland and Virginia), where federal involvement is relatively high. Situated between these two distinct shellfish-producing regions, New Jersey and New York have not supported aggressive reestablishment of historic Eastern Oyster populations in the HRE, and unlike adjacent states, have not developed long-term oyster aquaculture plans. The reluctance to support oyster restoration is due to concerns related to human health and ecological questions. Examples of best management practices currently employed in neighboring states offer potential solutions to address regulatory concerns and could form the basis for developing a productive long-term strategy to reestablish Eastern Oysters in the HRE.
Environmental Practice 14:110–129 (2012)