BRICK – Oyster farming is taking off on Barnegat Bay, with a demand for them so high that growers can’t keep up, said the operators of the Barnegat Oyster Collective, a distribution and advocacy organization for oyster farmers.
Scott Lennox and Matt Gregg, both 35, are New Jersey natives who were roommates at the University of Rhode Island. Oyster farming is a thriving industry in Rhode Island, so they learned about it while at school and came back home and decided to start a farm, Lennox said.
“There was nothing in New Jersey, especially in Barnegat Bay, so we started out super-small-time. Our first operation was a rented boat slip at Beaton’s Boatyard,” he said. “We had our first harvest in October 2012, right before Sandy. Then we got crushed.”
The men spent the next few years reassessing how to go forward. They decided they needed to diversify their location and their method of farming.
“The most important thing was, we couldn’t be the only ones doing this. We needed savvy baymen and baywomen to also be growing in the bay,” Lennox said. “Any other successful areas have a bunch of people doing it and teaching each other how to grow.”
All underwater land is owned by the state, so in order to procure an area for oyster farming the men had to lease it from New Jersey. The leases are cheap, less than $100 a year, but when other costs are factored in, such as survey and permitting fees, licenses, insurance and more, the cost could go as high as $1,000 a year per acre, he said.
“The DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] only allows the growing of oysters in the most pristine areas, which are regularly monitored by the state,” Lennox said.
“They also do not allow oyster farms where there is an existing population of hard clams, or near areas of large populations of eelgrass,” he said. “It’s an arduous process, and it can take about four years from the idea to a harvest.”
Lennox and Gregg, who had full time jobs as a high school science teacher and in the music industry, respectively, quit their day jobs and spend about 100 hours a week tending to their own oyster farm, “Forty North Oyster Farm,” which includes growing areas just south of the Mantoloking Bridge in Brick; in Barnegat Light; and Little Egg Harbor.
The lease in Brick includes about 20 acres. Only about five acres are currently being used for oyster farming, and some of that space was given to other oyster farmers, which include commercial fishermen, clammers, a restaurant group, and even a landscaper who grows the oysters as a side business, he said.
“One main guy, Tommy Burke, has done the most to keep up good relations with the other users,” Lennox said.
Burke, 24, was born and raised on Barnegat Bay in a waterfront neighborhood behind Beaton’s Boatyard. He attended Ocean County College for two years and got his four-year degree from Rutgers. He started his oyster farm, “Sloop Point Oyster,” while he was a student at OCC.
The young oyster farmer also has about 20 acres at the Brick location and raises two types of oysters: Sloop Point and Old Barney Salts which vary in flavor and shape.
“There are many different methods of farming oysters, but you start with seeds, which are just a few millimeters and are essentially baby oysters,” Burke explained.
The seeds can be purchased at hatcheries located along the coast from Florida to Maine. He bought his from Cape Cod Oyster Company, which raise the seeds from a “spat” stage to planting size.
“Then I plant them,” he said. Oysters take between 18 months and two years to grow, depending on the seed and the weather Burke said.
At the Brick location, where the water is five to eight feet deep, Burke grows oysters on shelves that are attached to black floats. The shelves have suspended square plastic mesh shelves which provide a home for the oysters to grow.
He has separate fields of oysters that are different stages of growth.
In Barnegat Light, where the water is more shallow, he grows the oysters in bottom cages.
“Oysters feed off plankton, and each oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day,” he said.
Burke said the oyster growing business operates 12 months a year.
Once the water temperature reaches 50 degrees, usually around Thanksgiving, oysters go dormant until the water goes back above 50 degrees, usually around Easter, he said. When they’re dormant they can still be harvested, they just can’t feed themselves, Burke explained.
Sometimes in the winter Burke has to break the ice to get to the oysters, which is challenging but can also be nice, he said.
“I’m in the groove, I’m making a living and enjoying it as well,” said Burke.
The oyster farmers pool their oysters together and sell them, Lennox said. This year they harvested about 1.5 million oysters in Barnegat Bay, with an estimated 250,000 harvested from the Brick location alone.
“There is an endless list and an endless demand of restaurants and retail stores who want to buy oysters, Lennox said. “We can’t see the ceiling – we can never fulfill the demand. It’s an amazing place to grow oysters and it’s a fortunate product to market in the tri-state area.”