Jun 13, 2010

The FDA in a Spat

If you have billions of gallons of contaminated water flowing out of a major metropolitan area and you want to stay in compliance with federal Clean Water Act regulations, how do you cost effectively treat every drop? If ever there was a place to look for revolutionary techniques in hazardous waste mitigation, look to New Jersey, where for the past ten years, the New York/New Jersey Bay Keepers, in association with Rutgers University and others, have cultivated oysters submerged in New York Harbor's Keyport Harbor and the Navesink River off Red Bank that have spent the past decade sucking up the dangerous contaminants we'd rather not have in the area. The oysters don't complain nor demand a salary or benefits, in fact, removing dangerous pollution from entering the ecosystem has made them happy as clams. These native molluscs may be dangerous to eat just like most other living things in New York Harbor, but their diligent filtering has meant new reefs that provide habitat for local marine life and clean water for oysters farther afield to produce delicious seafood fit for human consumption. Unfortunately, the FDA will have none of it.

Volunteers inspect a new crop of environmental remediation specialists.

If you draw your paycheck from the $790 million-a-year shellfish industry, you're worried about now. That's because with the BP spill shutting down shellfish beds in the Gulf Coast and a cautious public concerned about what their dinner has been drawing from the water column, responsible shellfishers of clean oysters in the Northeast have been wary of its publicity. If oyster poachers stole molluscs from the ecological remediation banks that BayKeepers have maintained, they could hit the market and cause human illness, an unacceptable breach of trust for the American market. That risk is too high, says the FDA which has ordered the NJ Department of Environmental Protection to remove the pollution-absorbing oyster farming operation entirely, including the concrete and steel pilings the oysters were cultivated on.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of hearing Environmental Conservation Investigator Chad Donk speak on the subject, and he reports that it's a suprisingly severe issue. In his illustrious career with the NY Department of Environmental Conservation, Donk witnessed first hand the extent to which oyster poachers will go to push tainted oysters onto the market. Black, souped up speed boats zoom into a bed under cover of darkness, rake up the oysters and run, occasionally instigating high speed Miami-Vice style harbor chases at night. Chad Donk is an Eco Tom Sellack, and he and his colleagues with state and federal authorities make about 60 arrests annually in shellfish-related violations even with hopelessly understaffed departments. Even in the 1800s, oystering in the wrong place and time was a big deal, not only for human health but also for the health of the resource. Famed author Jack London (Call of the Wild, White Fang) even spent some years in the California Fish Patrol to catch Oyster Pirates after he himself had spent some time in the trade.

These contaminated and recalled oysters are from one of three Louisiana beds shut down in April before the Big Spill because they are infected with Norovirus, a bacterial infection spread through fecal matter contamination. Speaking from experience (two summers ago I worked at a summer camp for kids. filthy, filthy kids) and I'll report it causes severe leakage out of very unpleasant orifices.
Ok, so it's a dissapointing loss to an interesting ecological remediation program, but if it's for public safety, certaintly it is justified?
To hear the Bay Keepers response, the DEP may have a few contaminants itself. The oysters are too small, the spats are immovably secured to massive concrete substrates and they're even guarded by volunteer oyster shepherds who ensure that their sunken, inaccessible oyster beds aren't even approached by traffic. Seriously? THAT is the risk level we're talking about? I can appreciate defending responsible industry, I can support the withdrawal of state funding for experiments that are not in the best interest of local jobs, but the miniscule risk of causing even a modest decrease in shellfish sales are hardly worth digging up beds of cheap, reliable water purifiers that actually improve the habitat and quality of the shellfishing industry's own product. This seems like such a self mutilating move by the shellfishing industry, they should be exalting their role in improving the environment, let alone their own product. Way to go, New Jersey.

Read more at http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/06/nj_bans_oyster_restoration_pro.html


  1. Digging the clam puns!

    I like that oysters are being used like this- reminds me of the way they're using goats to prevent wildfires in California. In fact I just drove past a herd of these guys on my way to work the other day.

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