New Jersey’s crazy war on oysters

By Felix Salmon
June 10, 2010
press release on Monday, saying that he was banning research-related oyster cultivation, and also seeking immediate removal of all such oysters.

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In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we’ve heard a great deal about how companies and regulators are bad at preventing things which are very unlikely to happen. One only wishes that was true of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection — which seems to have transformed itself into the New Jersey Department of Completely Bonkers.

NJ DEP commissioner Bob Martin put out a press release on Monday, saying that he was banning research-related oyster cultivation, and also seeking immediate removal of all such oysters.

This is not the kind of action that one would expect from a commissioner charged with environmental protection. Oysters are an incredibly cheap and effective way of filtering pollution out of water, and if you get rid of them, it’s extremely difficult and expensive to achieve the same results through alternative remediation projects.

Oysters are native to New Jersey, and it seems wrong to eradicate them from contaminated waters just because they’re unfit for human consumption — especially since they’re doing such a good job of cleaning those waters. So why is Martin taking this action?

“If someone gets sick from eating shellfish from contaminated waters, people may stop buying or eating New Jersey products or shellfish from approved waters. It could severely hurt the industry. We can’t allow that to happen.”

The full brunt of the ban will fall on one extremely worthy organization, NY/NJ Baykeepers. They make some excellent points in response:

Our oysters are not fit for human consumption. Just like blue crabs, ribbed mussels, finfish and all manner of other crustaceans and shellfish in the harbor, our oysters live and grow in contaminated water and are the subject of consumption advisories. The DEP seems to fear that there are people out there who will find our reefs — though underwater at all times, — choose our oysters — though they are too small for human consumption, — remove them — though they are firmly affixed to immovable structures, — and then sell them to unwitting consumers. We think that danger is vanishingly unlikely.

Still, we have frequently offered to work with the DEP to improve security. We have proposed many solutions to the supposed public health risk, including caging the oysters, citizen patrols, deputized volunteer patrols, and motion sensing technology. DEP has never seriously entertained these offers and now stands poised to decimate our oyster program even though it is the most cost effective method for environmental improvement currently on the table. We had hoped that Commissioner Martin would be willing to consider small business solutions for environmental problems, but now we know he just doesn’t get it. Instead, NY/NJ Baykeeper will potentially face layoffs, lose over a million dollars in project funding, and New Jersey residents will face huge tax bills when they are forced to fund more expensive remediation projects such as sewer separation and storm water control.

One useful way of thinking about this action is to reduce everything to dollars. Extra safeguards on the Deepwater Horizon might have cost a few million dollars, but they might have prevented billions of dollars in environmental damage — not to mention the loss of eleven lives. If there was say a one-in-1,000 chance of this disaster happening, you can multiply the up-front cost by 1,000 and then compare it to the damage caused by the disaster, and arrive at some pretty compelling numbers. Let’s say the extra safeguards would cost $10 million: multiply that by 1,000 and you get $10 billion. Whereas the cost of the disaster is maybe $50 billion. So you’re spending $1 for every $5 you save.

If you apply the same math to the oyster decision, then the decision still doesn’t make any sense. Say there’s a one-in-1,000 chance of contaminated oysters being found, chosen, removed, entered into the human-consumption supply chain, eaten, and ultimately damaging the New Jersey shellfish industry to the tune of say 25% of sales. Let’s put the costs of the decision at $10 million: multiply that by 1,000 and you get $10 billion. 25% of New Jersey shellfish sales is $200 million. So you’re essentially spending $50, here, for every dollar you save. It makes no sense.

I suspect that what’s happening here is a result of lobbying by the New Jersey shellfish industry, which will suffer no harm at all as a result of this decision. They’re surely happy about it. But they seem also to have a callous disregard for NY/NJ Baykeepers, for the environmental protection of New Jersey’s estuaries, and for New Jersey’s taxpayers more generally.

If similar reclamation schemes are a big success in the Chesapeake and elsewhere — which also have commercial shellfish operations nearby — they should work in New Jersey as well. So I hope there’s some small chance that Martin will do the right thing and change his mind. Maybe New Jersey’s oyster lovers can explain to him that they’re not worried about their food, so he shouldn’t be worried about it either.

Update: Count the high-end local oyster distributor W&T Seafood in among the opponents of Martin’s decision. If they don’t approve of it, who does?

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