The fear of poachers stealing oysters from polluted waters and making consumers sick has long thwarted efforts to grow them in New Jersey and use their natural ability to filter and improve water quality.
A proposed remedy could actually make matters even worse by removing state oversight and potentially causing the very illnesses regulators have long feared, some say.
The bill pending in the state Legislature would allow oyster colonies to be planted in polluted waters for research, water quality improvement or shoreline stabilization purposes. It also would block the state Department of Environmental Protection from regulating the patches, which even the most ardent supporters in the environmental community agree would be going too far.
"We're throwing the baby out with the clam broth," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
A state Senate committee was supposed to consider the bill Thursday, but after hearing criticism from both sides, lawmakers agreed to table it for amendments.
No DEP official spoke during the hearing. The department said it would issue a statement later in the day.
The bill calls for "unwrapping way more than we wanted," Baykeeper Greg Remaud said. "Some of those restrictions are warranted."
Environmental groups have a long history of trying to reestablish oyster colonies in polluted waterways as a means of trying to improve water quality. A single oyster can filter 50 gallons (189 liters) of water a day, making the shellfish ideal natural allies in the fight to clean up polluted waterways.
But the state has just as long a history of worrying about New Jersey's commercial shellfish industry, which is worth $800 million a year. A single outbreak of clam or oyster-borne illness could devastate the industry, regulators and commercial growers say.
"We've always been concerned about health and safety concerning shellfish," said Scot Mackey, a lobbyist for the Garden State Seafood Association. "Our concern is that there aren't any tainted products that reach the market. If it does, no one will ask, 'Where did it come from, what happened?' All that will get reported is someone got sick eating a New Jersey oyster or clam."
In 2010, the state ordered that oyster colonies in Keyport, in the polluted Raritan Bay, be ripped out because of fears that poachers might steal them and sicken consumers. Debbie Mans, who at the time led the group that established the colonies, NY/NY Baykeeper, is now the No. 2 official at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
The following year, Baykeeper and other environmental groups started experimenting with oyster colonies grown in bags off the side of a concrete pier at the Earle Naval Weapons Station in Middletown, not far from the aborted Keyport site. Guarded around the clock by patrol boats toting high-powered machine guns, the Navy pier was deemed sufficiently secure by the state to allow oyster research.
In 2016, Baykeeper planted additional rows of oysters just off the pier as a shoreline stabilization project in an area that was hammered by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Research has shown the bumpy underwater oyster reefs to be an effective protective measure against more severe storm damage, as they reduce the force of incoming waves during storms.
A year earlier, the American Littoral Society established an oyster reef in the Barnegat Bay in Berkeley Township, along with others in Delaware Bay.
But these measures are subject to strict state control, and the DEP has the power under current law to disapprove any such project it deems too risky. The bill under consideration said a previously enacted measure "gave the DEP unnecessarily wide discretion with regard to approving or rejecting these kinds of projects."