October 5, 2006
Non-edible bivalves could help clean up the river
By Scott Fallon
They are the slimy aphrodisiac, savored only by connoisseurs.
Oysters may be an acquired taste, but they are universally loved by environmentalists.
So much so that thousands of the mollusks will soon be dumped into the Hackensack River with the hope that they will act as a natural water treatment system for the recovering waterway.
The Meadowlands Commission will likely approve a $30,000 study at its Oct. 13 meeting on whether an oyster reef can be established in parts of the lower Hackensack River. If the report is favorable, commission officials expect to place thousands of juvenile oysters in three to five secluded locations in the river by March.
There is a concern over whether a large number of oysters can survive in a river that is slowly coming back to life after decades of pollution.
"Some parts are cleaner than others so right now we're identifying locations with a high probability of success," said Francisco Artigas, director of the commission's environmental research institute.
Still, officials stress that these oysters are not to be eaten.
The river already has small pockets of oysters living on railroad bridge pylons in Secaucus and on rocks in the nearby Mill Creek Marsh, said Hugh Carola, of the environmental group Hackensack Riverkeeper.
A successful oyster reef "will be proof positive that the water is cleaner," Carola said.
It will also aid in the cleanup.
An adult oyster can filter 50 to 60 gallons of water a day by removing algae and other substances.
Cloudy water can eventually become clear, allowing for vegetation to grow below the surface.
As oysters reproduce, their clustered shells often become the equivalent of a reef and offer protection for fish, crabs, barnacles and other water life.
"You get more light going in and it allows more diversity to come in," Artigas said. "You build a reef community."
The Passaic River Coalition would love to do the same, but the riverbed is not clean enough to sustain oysters.
"The water quality is there, but the sediments are not,'' said Ella Filippone, the coalition's director. "The level of contaminants in the Hackensack is not nearly as high as the Passaic."
The Meadowlands Commission is following the example of several environmental groups around the country that have started to replenish waterways with oysters.
In Maryland and Virginia, environmentalists are attempting to increase the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay tenfold by the end of this decade.
In New York City, the Parks Department and some environmental groups began placing oysters in the Bronx River in July to see if they survive, and hope to learn how healthy the river is.
Artigas hopes to have as many as 50 volunteers working on the project, which does not yet have a price tag. Money will come from the commission's $12 million fund for wetlands restoration.