Final Report-EA

Oyster Occupation: A Look Into The Oyster Industry In Raritan Bay

Erik Aleksanyan

The Raritan Bay and its neighboring waters were once the golden grounds for oyster catching in the Northeast. Prior to the 1930s, the East Coast oyster industry was a booming market with 67,000 workers who cultivated 73,000 tons of oysters a year.[1] In her article published in the Village Voice on the history of oyster farming, Karen Tedesco emphasizes the importance of Raritan Bay oyster farms. She includes the following quote from Mark Kurlansky’s book, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, to describe the success of oyster farms in this area: “… nineteenth-century New Yorkers ‘consumed as many as a million oysters a day,’ and [oysters from the Raritan Bay region] were shipped to far-flung aficionados in Chicago, San Francisco, Paris and London”[2]. Unfortunately, these waters were located near concentrated urban and industrial areas in the New York and New Jersey area; and being near these industrial areas left them vulnerable to contamination from sewers, public dump sites, and general industry pollution. With the addition of the numerous cargo ships passing through the Raritan Bay to reach the ports of Newark and Manhattan, the rich oyster populations were forced to face a great deal of adversity.

The contamination of these waters over the years led to a decline in oyster populations and created safety issues for oyster consumers. In his paper, History of Fisheries of Raritan Bay, New York and New Jersey, Clyde Mackenzie describes the downfall of the oyster industry in this area due to the increase in water pollution and aims to emphasize the far-reaching influence of the industry. Mackenzie claims, “After 1915, the oyster industry declined steadily as newspapers reported human illness from typhoid fever, especially in Chicago, traced to Raritan Bay oysters”[3]. As Karen Tedesco had stated, Raritan Bay oysters were consumed worldwide. So, the effects of the Raritan Bay area oyster crisis were far-reaching beyond the New York/New Jersey area and affected thousands of people in other areas as well.

In addition to the far-reaching effects Mackenzie presents, when we consider the size of this industry, it is not difficult to imagine the impact of its decline had on the local communities. While scientific data has been collected on the impact of pollution on the local oyster population, no research has been done to study the effects of this pollution on local residents. By studying the source of water pollution in the Raritan Bay area water systems, steps taken to combat the pollution, and its impact on the livelihood of the region and its people, a more complete picture of this tragedy can be assembled. Understanding the entire picture will highlight the injustices experienced by local residents and provide valuable insight that can aid in the rehabilitation efforts of the region’s water systems.

Polluting the Raritan Bay

One of the biggest polluters of these waters is the combined sewage running from nearby cities. Prior to the construction of combined sewer systems, single-pipe systems were used by cities to transport sewage. However, this single-pipe system was prone to over-filling and flooding the streets during intense periods of rainfall. The combined sewage systems were constructed to overcome this problem by dumping untreated sewage into the ocean when the sewage system became overwhelmed. Without filtration, the sewage carried pathogens and pollutants straight into the heart of the aquatic ecosystems.

   

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The sewage from nearby cities consist mostly of wet matter (approx. 60-70%), as well as some solid matter—which include both water soluble and insoluble waste. In a 1912 report written by the Metropolitan Sewerage Commission of New York, the writers estimate “… New York at 5,000,000 people, there is a discharged every day about 625 tons of fecal matter.”[5]

With no clean up procedures in place, and the ocean was left to clean itself with the help of bottom feeders and filter feeders alike. Oysters are one of these filter feeders that can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. However, oysters at the Raritan Bay could not handle the overwhelming amount of waste brought by the sewage from urban cities like New York and New Jersey. Oysters became infected and inedible due to the bacteria from the untreated sewage they filtered. As oysters became infected, their filtering became less efficient, and more and more oysters drowned in solid waste. As a result of decreased filtering and the unending amounts of incoming waste, oyster farms in the Raritan Bay area became extinct in 1925.

In his paper, Clyde Mackenzie describes the effect of pollution on the industry: “By 1925, the negative publicity had forced planters to abandon the oyster industry permanently.”[6] At this point, only a few oyster farmers were still working in the Raritan area. They were small in number and did not produce as many oysters as their predecessors. Many of the farmers cultivated oysters for research instead of selling them. These farmers attempted to measure the damage in order to understand whether the oyster population could be saved in these areas.

In 2010, Bob Martin, a commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Environmental, put out a statement to “…[ban] research-related gardening of commercial shellfish species in coastal and inner harbor waters classified as contaminated”.[7] This ban was put in place, both to protect researchers who came in contact with the shellfish from health risks, and to shield the $790 million-a-year shellfish industry from further public scrutiny.[8] The commissioner knew that oyster industry could not be revived if the public equated the industry with disease and uncleanliness, so all oyster operations in contaminated waters were brought to a halt. Cultivation of oysters continued in non-contaminated waters. Oysters from these areas were sent out to markets, and unsold oysters were used as filters in contaminated areas. The department supported oyster farming in select areas in hopes of an upward spiral for the oyster industry.

In its former glory, the oyster industry was the largest aquatic industry in the area from 1825 to 1915, creating jobs at oyster farms, boat yards, basket factories, lime kilns, freight boats, and railroads.[9] A total of 595 oystermen worked in the Raritan Bay and neighboring water systems during this time.[10] The economy boomed as the oyster trade brought in large sums of revenue for the surrounding regions. Unfortunately, these oystermen lost their jobs in 1927, when the last commercial oyster bed in the Raritan Bay area closed[11]. While many of these oystermen turned to other aquatic based jobs like fishing and clamming, these jobs were not as lucrative as oyster farming. At its peak, 500 active oyster vessels were at work in the Raritan Bay area, however this number fell to just 30 boats following the decline in oyster beds.[12]

The Decline of Oyster Farming

The oyster industry was a source of employment for the majority of residents in the Raritan Bay area, and when it collapsed, the lack of jobs drove many local families to poverty. The lack of jobs and high rate of unemployment lead to “… a drastic decline in the standard of living for many families with established roots in the region.”[13] A New York Times article from 1964 notes that oyster farmers were forced to ask for assistance from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in order to take care of their families.[14] However, even with assistance, some local residents continued to struggle and were forced to relocate to make a living elsewhere.[15]

As locals started earning less and less money, the amount of money in circulation also declined, which started choking local businesses. Accounts from locals detail drastic changes which reshaped the region following the oysters’ deaths. Locals such as Sheri Gatier claim “At one time there were car dealers and movie theaters, and department stores, … tons of speakeasies… Unfortunately, when (the oysters) died… it died.”[16] While another local, Rachel Dolhanczyk claims “…there were more millionaires here than anywhere else in New Jersey…”[17] In this way, the death of oysters not only left oystermen unemployed, but also put small businesses out of work. Over time, an increasing number of stores and shops started closing their doors, and soon enough the once lively Raritan Bay area became abandoned. As opportunities for jobs dried up and families moved away, the local communities shrunk and became more individualistic.

To expand on the impact of the declining oyster industry on local communities, it is important to understand the culture behind oyster farming. Cultivation of oysters is a job which requires collaborative group efforts, which is depicted by the image below. This image was created based on interviews with fisherman from 1930s to reflect the average household of oyster farmers and shows a family of five working together to clean/prepare oysters. The father is shown cleaning oysters with his two children, while another child brings these oysters to the mother, who is packaging the cleaned oysters into jars. Just as in the picture, oyster farmers in the Raritan Bay area would often work together like a family to prepare oysters. This group work helped establish stronger ties and relationships within the oystermen communities. However, as pollution started killing oysters in the Raritan Bay, competition among oyster farmers increased, which diminished their sense of community. The death of local communities residing in the area, as well as the decline in regional left only a shell of what the Raritan Bay area once was.

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Conserving Oysters and Local Communities

However, this crisis was perhaps a necessary wake-up call for many people. Following the rise in pollution and oyster extinction, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) instated the Clean Water Act which “…establishe[d] the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the water”.[19] This act is still in effect today and has allowed for improvements in the water. Although it took many years to see the effects of the Clean Water Act, it started a precedence across the US and inspired people to protect their local ecosystems.

In addition to passing laws, the government also joined forces with local people to revive the oyster populations in this region. One of the prime examples of this collaboration is the Billion Oyster Project. Established in 2014, the project aimed to bring back one billion oyster to the New York harbor by the year 2035.[20] This project brought together students, volunteers, community scientists and restaurants across the five boroughs to teach the public about the rich history of New York and its oysters.[21] These efforts of the Billion Oyster Project are not only reviving oyster populations, but also actively helping rebuild the sense of community that was diminished due to the death of oysters.

People like Murray Fisher and Pete Malinowski from the Billion Oyster Project have predicted that through rehabilitation efforts such as this one, oysters can come back to the shores of New York and New Jersey. The project hopes that these new oyster populations will grow into reefs and stabilize the motion of water. New Jersey and New York have long coastlines with many residential areas, and water motion stability is crucial to safety of their residents. This significance is more obvious when considering the aftermath of natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy. Meredith Comi, the restoration program director for New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, considers oysters a great asset for protecting residential areas during storms. She comments that if these efforts are successful, “When another Superstorm Sandy comes through, it won’t stop the surge, but it will certainly slow it down”[22].

Unfortunately, these events are not unique to the Raritan Bay; in the Hippo Pool Village, water has been contaminated by a nearby mine for years and communities are facing even worse consequences.[23] Aquatic pollution is a widespread problem of our day, and we must spread awareness about its effects on our ecosystems, as well as people across the world. The numerous effects of the Raritan Bay oyster disaster prove how the health of our water systems impact people directly and indirectly, especially local residents. In an increasingly connected world, it is not possible to isolate problems, when the burdens of local disasters are felt globally. It is only natural to embark on global efforts to control aquatic pollution if we want to make real changes.

Keywords: Class, Toxics, Water, Pollution, Business


[1] Dan Flynn, “Oyster-Borne Typhoid Fever Killed 150 in Winter of 1924-25”, Food Safety News

[2] Karen Tedesco, “A Billion Oysters Tell the History of New York”, The Village Voice, last modified June 1, 2015, https://www.villagevoice.com/2015/06/01/a-billion-oysters-tell-the-history-of-new-york/

[3] Clyde L. Mackenzie Jr., “History of Fisheries of Raritan Bay, New York and New Jersey”, accessed November 26, 2020, https://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/sites/default/files/pdf-content/MFR/mfr524/mfr5241.pdf.

[4] “Combined Sewer Overflows”, NYC Environmental Protection, accessed December 10, 2020, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/dep/water/combined-sewer-overflows.page

[5] Soper, George A., James H. Fuertes, H. de B. Parsons, Charles Sooysmith, and Linsly R. Williams. Rep. “Present Sanitary Condition of New York Harbor and the Degree of Cleanness Which Is Necessary and Sufficient for the Water”, University of Michigan, Accessed November 16, 2020. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015021042760&view=1up&seq=2

[6] Clyde L. Mackenzie Jr., “History of Fisheries of Raritan Bay, New York and New Jersey”, accessed November 26, 2020, https://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/sites/default/files/pdf-content/MFR/mfr524/mfr5241.pdf.

[7] “Commissioner Aims to Protect Public Health and Shellfish Industry”, State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, last modified June 7, 2010, https://www.nj.gov/dep/newsrel/2010/10_0053.htm

[8] “Commissioner Aims to Protect Public Health and Shellfish Industry”, State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, last modified June 7, 2010, https://www.nj.gov/dep/newsrel/2010/10_0053.htm

[9] Clyde L. Mackenzie Jr., “History of Fisheries of Raritan Bay, New York and New Jersey”, accessed November 26, 2020, https://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/sites/default/files/pdf-content/MFR/mfr524/mfr5241.pdf.

[10] Clyde L. Mackenzie Jr., “History of Fisheries of Raritan Bay, New York and New Jersey”, accessed November 26, 2020, https://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/sites/default/files/pdf-content/MFR/mfr524/mfr5241.pdf.

[11] “History of New York Harbor”, Billion Oyster Project, accessed December 10, 2020, https://www.billionoysterproject.org/harbor-history

[12] Kimberly R. Sebold, Sara Amy Leach, “HISTORIC THEMES AND RESOURCES within the NEW JERSET COASTAL HERITIGE TRAIL ROUTE”, U.S. Department of the Interior, last modified 1991, https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/nj2/chap3b.htm

[13] “OYSTER INDUSTRY REVITALIZATION TASK FORCE”, last modified January 1999, https://www.state.nj.us/seafood/Oyster_Industry_Revitalization_Task_Force.pdf

[14] Port Norris, “Jersey Oyster Town Fights for Life”, The New York Times, last modified November 24, 1964, https://www.nytimes.com/1964/11/24/archives/jersey-oyster-town-fights-for-life.html

[15] Port Norris, “Jersey Oyster Town Fights for Life”, The New York Times, last modified November 24, 1964, https://www.nytimes.com/1964/11/24/archives/jersey-oyster-town-fights-for-life.html

[16] Catalina Jaramillo, “New Jersey oyster farmers betting on a comeback, climate permitting”, State Impact Pennsylvania, last modified August 11, 2017, https://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2017/08/11/new-jersey-oyster-farmers-betting-on-a-comeback-climate-permitting/

[17] Catalina Jaramillo, “New Jersey oyster farmers betting on a comeback, climate permitting”, State Impact Pennsylvania, last modified August 11, 2017, https://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2017/08/11/new-jersey-oyster-farmers-betting-on-a-comeback-climate-permitting/

[18] Clyde L. Mackenzie Jr., “History of Fisheries of Raritan Bay, New York and New Jersey”, accessed November 26, 2020, https://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/sites/default/files/pdf-content/MFR/mfr524/mfr5241.pdf.

[19] “Summary of the Clean Water Act”,  United States Environmental Protection Agency, accessed December 10, 2020, https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-clean-water-act

[20] “History of New York Harbor”, Billion Oyster Project, accessed December 10, 2020, https://www.billionoysterproject.org/harbor-history

[21] “Our Story”, Billion Oyster Project, accessed December 10, 2020, https://www.billionoysterproject.org/our-story

[22] Michael Sol Warren, “Baby Oysters Discovered in a N.J. Bay Are Cause for Celebration. Here’s Why”, NJ.com, last modified January 16 2019, https://www.nj.com/news/2017/12/raritan_bay_oyster_reef_has_started_reproducing_na.html

[23] John Vidal, “I drank the water and ate the fish. We all did. The acid has damaged me permanently”, The Guardian, last modified August 1, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/aug/01/zambia-vedanta-pollution-village-copper-mine