Dale Parsons, fifth generation bayman and seafood purveyor in Tuckerton, has a more than passing interest in Little Egg Harbor Bay since his family has been making their living from the bounty of the bay for over 100 years.
Parsons Seafood started out as a clam house. In the early years the menfolk were the middlemen for hundreds of clammers who would drive their chugging garveys up to the open door, hoist their burlap bags of clams onto the dock and wait for the Parsons family members to tally and then mark their catches in pencil in a ledger. Whether the clams were sold to the Campbell’s Soup factory in Camden or loaded into cars at the Tuckerton Railroad depot bound for the Philadelphia and New York fish markets, clammers relied on the area’s small number of clam houses to sell their catch. They and their families lived in Tuckerton, Parkertown, West Tuckerton, West Creek and Bass River.
This system of divided workload continued up until the 1970s, when the number of wild-caught clams dwindled to the hundreds instead of the thousands.
Dale Parsons, 41, knew that if the situation were to improve he would have to take a different tactic. Beginning in the late 1990s he began teaching himself aquaculture. He rented a building at the end of South Green Street and started a shellfish hatchery. At first he grew clams and then added oysters.
It was a successful experiment and he planted the “homegrown” clam spat on his clam beds in Great Bay. He is now a veteran of years of fighting icy winters that gouged the clam beds bare, years of brown tides (lethal algae blooms that starved the crop) and years when exploding populations of cow-nosed rays ate the product until it was decided wire mesh netting was needed to cover the clams. Through it all, Parsons has learned much about the bay and its needs.
Then in October 2012 Sandy came and wiped out the hatchery building and his business. But he persevered, starting a nursery for clams and oysters at the Great Bay Marina on Osborn Island.
In 2014 he was invited to join the Barnegat Bay Partnership’s Shellfish Working Group.
“At the first meeting we learned there was a grant of $50,000 available for projects aimed at bettering the Barnegat Bay Estuary,” said Parsons. “It could have been used for outreach or stormwater management, anything aimed at improving water quality,” said Parsons. “No one at the meeting had discussed oyster reefs and I spoke up strongly for the development of manmade oyster reefs in Little Egg Harbor Bay.”
It’s long been known that oysters are the Olympians of all filter feeders. Taking in gallons of water every day and filtering out microscopic algae to feast on. Back in the 1700s, settlers remarked on how the bays of Maryland used to be as clear as fresh water when oysters were thriving. Parsons and others believe oysters can do much to clean the bay.
To qualify for the funding, Shellfish Working Group members were allowed to apply, but one of the criteria was they had to have an academic partner.
“I knew Steve Evert was interested because he often came to the shellfish hatchery to talk about aquaculture,” said Parsons. Evert is the manager of Stockton University’s Marine Field Station.
“I left the meeting and went directly to Steve. Within two or three hours, we had a good idea for oyster restoration in the bay.”
Together the two men worked out their plan to include the public in the process by recycling oyster and clam shells from participating seafood restaurants.
“We submitted our proposal and we won and were funded,” he said.
It was at least 50 years since anyone had attempted to grow oysters in Little Egg Harbor Bay, said Parsons. “A lot of people didn’t think they would survive in the bay. We got a lot of pushback, but the numbers don’t lie. After our first year we have a good rate of survivorship.
“After all our work, the oyster reef is equal to, if not better than, all other manmade reefs on the East Coast,” said Parsons.
Because Parsons had good instincts and hard-earned knowledge of clam production on lots in the bay, he knew what they would be up against. First the men scouted for the best type of underwater surface. “If you have a muddy bottom, the silt will cover the spat and kill it. The same for a sandy bottom; sand moves around a lot. We found a spot that has a clay bottom and also has strong tidal flow – perfect for building a reef.”
The 2-acre lease is in the Little Egg Harbor Bay between Parkertown and Beach Haven.
Parsons said Long Beach Township Mayor Joseph Mancini has been a big proponent and help in the building of the reef. “Mayor Mancini is very supportive of the idea. He hired some employees to collect the shells from the restaurants to support the reef, and last year Jetty Rock came on board to support the reef. Through their foundation they raise funds to grow the reef,” said Parsons. Already a dozen restaurants on LBI and Manahawkin save their customers’ discarded shells to clean and put on the reef.
“In 2016 we put the first 150 bushels of shell overboard. I supply the physical work, while Steve does the statistical analysis. I collected and washed the shell. At first we used whelks because the predators, the cow-nosed rays, have a harder time getting the shell into their mouths to eat the spat – then shoveled the shell into the wire cages and put them in the tanks at my aquaculture station. Then I added the oyster larvae in the tanks.”
Oyster larvae are tiny floating plankton that settle on a suitable structure such as shell and grow into tiny oysters called spat. The spat can be seen as tiny beauty marks on the shell. The tanks have fresh bay water from Great Bay pumped through them so the oysters can grow by filter feeding. Once the spat are the size of a mole, the shell can go to the reef.
Evert and Parsons sampled the reef periodically over the summer of 2017. This year, the oysters are 2 to 3 inches long. These oysters will never be harvested to eat. They are strictly for improving water quality.
“The reef is proof of our concept and now we hope we can do it on a larger scale,” said Parsons.
People can learn about the oyster reef and donate to the reef by going to followtheshell.com.