A barge carrying tens of thousands of clam shells was located just south of Atlantic City Monday night, on its way to Barnegat Bay.
Its final destination will be a one-acre site in the central portion of Barnegat Bay that scientists have identified as a historic site for oyster growth.
The 8,000 bushels of clam shells – from more than 80,000 individual clams in all – will be used as an artificial reef on which oysters can grow, providing hope the area can be brought back to its once-productive glory.
The project is being speaheaded by the American Littoral Society in partnership with the Barnegat Bay Shellfish Restoration Program and local group ReClam the Bay.
"Most oysters grow attached to other shells," explained Bill Shadel, Habitat Restoration Program Director for the American Littoral Society.
Normally, he said, oysters grow on the shells of other oysters, but clam shells can work just as well.
The reef site will be located off Good Luck Point, southeast of the mouth of the Toms River in the waters off Berkeley Township. It was chosen because of its historical oyster productivity as well as its selection by state Department of Environmental Protection scientists as having the best growth potential out of a number of sites surveyed across the estuary.
After workers from the marine contractor towing the barge deposit the clam shells over the site, they will remain there permanently, and 300,000 seed clams will be planted on the reef by next summer.
"We're going to try a few different methods to get oysters on the site, so we can see what will work best in the future," said Shadel.
In addition to planting seed clams raised in protected upwellers, workers with the bay's shellfisheries program will attempt to deposit oyster larvae directly onto a portion of the reef to see if and how well they survive and grow.
"That's going to be a different approach," Shadel said.
The American Littoral Society and its partners obtained permits for the reef site over the summer. Altogether, the project will cost $329,259 which has been raised through a number of federal government and nonprofit grants.
The Good Luck Point reef will be continually monitored as scientists scour the bay for future shellfish reef sites that could lead to an expansion of the program.
In addition to the central bay, areas near Brick Township and Little Egg Harbor have historically been productive clamming grounds. At its peak, the bay from Brick to Little Egg contained 20 square miles of oyster beds, though that number has been declining since the mid-1800s, officials with the American Littoral Society said.
There have been multiple causes for the decline, including overfishing, diease, and an increase in predators due to higher salinity that resulted from a storm-altered Beach Haven Inlet.