In fact, New Jersey was among the nation's leading sources of oysters for almost a century, with yearly crops of 5 to 10 million pounds harvested at its peak. But the oyster population was wiped out by disease in 1957 and never fully recovered.
In 1997, local officials sought to change all this. An experiment conducted by the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper began to seed area waterways with oysters.
This year, Bayonne students will get their chance to help with the recovery effort, thanks to the efforts of Woodrow Wilson School Principal Dr. Catherine Quinn; Anna Panayiotou, coordinator of the school district's Cleaner & Greener Citywide Committee; and the City of Bayonne.
Bayonne High School Teacher Tom Tokar and Woodrow Wilson School Teacher Larissa Drennan coordinated and finalized a student-run, citywide experiment in which 12,000 oysters will be raised in Newark Bay during the 2008-2009 school year.
Richard Dwyer, PSE&G public affairs manager, said oysters help restore oxygen to the water and remove sediment and pollution.
"Oysters are little bio-engineers," Dwyer said. "What they do is take the silt and pollution out of the water. In their digestive process, they make little packets and dispose them on the bottom. The crabs come along and eat the packets. So all the stuff that is free-flowing in the water gets processed. Each oyster can process up to 50 gallons of water a day."
Dwyer noted that scientists studying the decreases in water quality in Chesapeake Bay found a direct correlation between lack of oysters and a drop in water quality.
Asked PSE&G for support
Dwyer said he ran into Tokar a few months ago.
"I asked him if he had any projects that the all-volunteer PSE&G Environmental Partnership Team could support," Dwyer said. "He said that he needed one Taylor Float [a device that contains oysters near the water surface] for each Bayonne public school for oyster gardens."
Bill Elmer, planning and design manager for PSE&G, said, "As with most of the environmental projects that the team has supported for over 12 years, some environmental advocates have the ideas. Yet they may not have the skill, resources, or time to construct the projects."
To help with the oyster initiative, the PSE&G Environmental Partnership team constructed 20 Taylor Floats to aid in the start-up of these "oyster gardens." The floats help to contain the oysters near the surface of the water, allowing food and oxygen to reach them and protecting them from predators. They will also allow students and volunteers to monitor and maintain the oyster population.
The team constructed and donated the floats to the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper and the Bayonne public schools. Each environmental club in 12 Bayonne public schools will get a float.
The students will have the chance to watch their oyster gardens grow and help reduce pollution in the waterways around the Peninsula City.
"The project is another good opportunity for students to use the outdoors as 'living classrooms,'" Dwyer said, "and to show the environmental value provided by the PSE&G Environmental Partnership Team."
Already more oysters
Baykeeper's volunteer-driven Oyster Gardening Program, combined with an Aquaculture Program, has resulted in the restoration of hundreds of thousands of oysters to the estuary ecosystem, allowing this keystone species to begin playing its natural role in cleansing waterways.
"Last year, the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper donated 1,000 baby oysters to Teacher Larissa Drennan and me for an oyster garden," said Tokar. "Because our teachers and students were highly successful, the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper donated 12,000 oysters this year. Our future goal is to create our own oyster reef in Bayonne."
By May 2009, Tokar hopes to take the oysters and place them on a reef in Newark Bay, adding new oysters each year.
"In addition to making the bay cleaner, the oyster project also gives our students a chance to practice science outside the classroom," Tokar said. "To test oyster growth, students don heavy rubber pants and, at low-tide, trudge through the water and bring back to shore floating oyster cages. The students use rulers to record the size of each oyster, and put all their numbers into a citywide database. Throughout the year, the students will also record and analyze several water markers, including oxygen, pH and transparency levels."
He hopes to have all 11 elementary schools involved by Oct. 15.
Science Director Robert Dawson said the Bayonne School District's Oyster Project is an extraordinary and innovative science learning experience for the district's students.
"The entire committee, staff, and students should be commended for their hard work and effort," Dawson said.
On Oct. 1, Tom Tokar, Larissa Drennan, and Barbara Karafky will host a workshop at Woodrow Wilson School at 3:15 p.m. to train this year's oyster gardeners.
"The baykeeper is thrilled to have PSE&G supporting the oyster gardening program. To see improvement in our waterways, a critical mass of oysters must be restored. Cooperation between non-profits, educators, and agencies such as PSE&G will help achieve this goal," said Meredith Comi, NY/NJ Baykeeper Oyster Program Director. "We look forward to working with PSE&G on future oyster gardening projects."