Oysters are thriving in the state, thanks to the work of Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, a network of research and education facilities statewide that protect not only fisheries and aquaculture, but also the environment and other natural resources. It plays a big role in helping Rutgers University–New Brunswick fulfill its mandate as the state’s land-grant institution, charged with bringing science-based solutions to New Jersey and its people.
Betsy Haskin stands with her back to the broad sweep of the Delaware Bay, her gaze focused on the wild “box” that fits neatly into the curve of her palm. She is holding a Cape Shore oyster, one that she has raised since it was no bigger than a grain of rice. Now that it is ready to be sold to market, Haskin is delighted. It is a perfect oyster—nicely rounded with a clear hinge and neat edges, and a deep cup to hold the unmistakably sweet-and-salty meat that is the product of time and place.
It takes a little over a year to raise an oyster the way that Haskin does it. And it takes the salinity levels, the daily wash of the tides, and the nutrient-dense waters of the Delaware Bay to finish it off. Haskin sells her bivalves through her small business, Betsy’s Cape Shore Salts, located on the shallow flats just north of Cape May, down at the southern tip of New Jersey. Most of her oysters end up in restaurants, where patrons get to indulge themselves in one of the state’s signature industries.
Haskin gets her seed oysters from the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory, which is named for her father, the late Harold Haskin RC’36, a former Rutgers biology professor who directed the lab during the 1950s and 1960s and who was an expert on the ecology of marine mollusks. The laboratory is part of Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES), which was established in 1880 and has since grown to become a network of 11 research facilities statewide; NJAES is also the administrator of field offices in each of the state’s 21 counties, collectively known as the Rutgers Cooperative Extension. Experts in each office provide science-based outreach to residents, ranging from food nutrition to lawn care.
This year, the university is celebrating its 150th year as the state’s anointed land-grant institution, charged with supporting scientific solutions, research, and development in seven areas crucial to the quality of life in New Jersey, including fisheries. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, which established the Cooperative Extension Service in the United States and thus the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.
I just sort of tiptoed into it. I got intrigued by growing oysters and figuring out how to take care of them,” says Haskin. “I had advice from people, yes. But, in the end, it’s the hours you put in and watching what happens and learning from your mistakes. I’m not getting rich, but I do make money. And people love my oysters.”
Haskin spends much of her spring, summer, and fall tending her oysters off the plot of land her parents once owned, with the aid of her family. She uses the daily, time-tested rack-and-bag system to grow her oysters. They are stored on racks in the bay, kept inside mesh bags from the time they are only a half-inch long until they are ready to be sold as many as 18 months later.
Aside from the taste and quality of Haskin’s oysters, their great appeal is their sustainability. They are farmed in their own habitat. They feed themselves. They grow at their own pace. They fulfill an essential role in the food chain. Haskin stewards them by keeping them clean in the mesh bags and maintaining their welfare. But they are a wild product, farmed thoughtfully. Betsy Haskin’s oysters, and the laboratory where they begin their lives, are as good an example of mission made manifest as you are likely to see. Or taste.
At the Haskin lab, which is located in Port Norris, along the shores of the Delaware Bay, Ximing Guo, a professor of mulluscan genetics and aquaculture, carries on the bivalve revolution that was started by Harold Haskin. Research in shellfisheries at Rutgers began in 1888 when Julius Nelson was hired as the biologist for the newly formed NJAES. Most of his early years were devoted to poultry and dairy problems, but Nelson’s interest in marine biology grew, leading him to investigate biological problems afflicting clams and oysters, which were a big part of the coastal New Jersey economy.
In the 1950s, the shellfish industry tanked because of overfishing, habitat destruction, and a protozoan parasite called MSX that decimated the eastern oyster population. Haskin spent his career working with Rutgers students and other researchers to build a better, heartier, more disease-resistant oyster. Guo has advanced that cause as a member of a team of scientists who have fully sequenced the Pacific oyster genome. Genetic sequencing gives scientists clues to the way an organism works and, in the case of the Pacific oyster, how it responds to disease.
But Guo’s most impressive work came with the “invention” of the triploid oyster, a viable hybrid bivalve with three sets of chromosomes, developed after decades of creating and evaluating new and experimental lines of oysters. It is heartier, and more disease-resistant, than any line that has been developed. David Bushek, the director of the lab, notes that Guo was named a 2013 Inventor of the Year by the New Jersey Inventor’s Hall of Fame, and his hybrid oyster technology has been exported across the globe.
“The Rutgers invention has greatly changed oyster farming around the world,” says Guo. “Now, more than 50 percent of the hatchery produced oysters are sterile triploids, made by using the Rutgers technology. Because of the extra set of chromosomes, triploid oysters are sterile, grow fast, and maintain good meat quality. They do not interbreed with wild oysters and therefore are friendlier to the environment.”
Others have been helping to develop the oyster aquaculture industry in New Jersey, too. Researcher Lisa Calvo, for one, is taking advantage of the lab’s disease-resistant stocks and triploid technologies and is aiding in the effort to develop a co-op to get fledgling oyster culturists up and running. Calvo also developed an innovative educational program on the role of oysters from ecological, economic, historical, and social perspectives, and she was recently recognized as New Jersey’s Marine Educator of the Year. Kathy Alcox has been the lead field researcher, helping to manage and sustain the wild oyster fishery in the state for the past decade.
The Haskin lab has four sites dotting 40 miles of the New Jersey coastline, where a number of initiatives beyond breeding hybrid oysters take place. It works closely with the state to manage and assess the health of the public resources harvested through the fisheries—shellfish and finfish, offshore and inshore fisheries—and develops husbandry techniques that maximize the product of those fisheries in ways that are environmentally sound and sustainable. Along with training and educational opportunities for aquafarmers, it has furnished the state with salinity reports every year since 1927 and now produces several annual fishery surveys. The facility itself has eight well-equipped labs for research in ecology, microbiology, cell cultures, and molecular diagnostics, among other areas. But its forte, thanks to Haskin, Guo, and others, has always been shellfish.
“Shellfish production in New Jersey is by far the most important fishery,” says Bushek GSNB’94. “Both in landing and dollar value, it’s the shellfish fishery that drives the values for the state. Much of the work that has been done to make that sustainable, and to continue, has gone on through the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory. That is our mission.”
Harold Haskin was in his 80s when Betsy moved back to the flats with her family. He kept a little oyster garden off the beach, and sold a few now and then. People loved their taste and quality. After he died, a friend showed his daughter what he had been doing. She discovered that she had a way with oysters—no surprise for someone who helped her dad move them when she was young: out of the bay to safety during the winter and back into the bay for growth in the spring.
“I’m out here all times of year,” Haskin says. “It can be tough in the rain. In the wind. In the cold. But I love taking care of my oysters. There is a big sense of history, a sense of continuity, and a sense that there is some reason to keep this going.” •
Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station
brings a vast network of expertise to commercial industry
in New Jersey and to the state's residents.
In providing research and educational expertise to support fisheries and aquaculture, the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory is one of 11 off-campus facilities statewide that falls under the rubric of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES). NJAES also administers a vast network of field offices in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties called the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, which provide educational programs and personnel to serve the residents of the state. As an engine of economic growth and job creation, NJAES assists commercial agriculture and its sustainability; helps protect the environment and natural resources; promotes food safety, nutrition, and healthy lifestyles; offers advice and assistance for home, lawn, and garden care; and helps communities with everything from youth activities such as 4-H to assisting the elderly to championing community development. Much of the effort is conducted at the 10 centers and institutes associated with NJAES.
“Since 1880, NJAES has remained relevant to the lives of New Jersey residents and businesses through its commitment to hands-on education and applied research conducted at its on- and off-campus research facilities and field stations,” says Larry Katz, senior associate director of NJAES and director of the Cooperative Extension. “It plays a significant role in the environmental, food, and agricultural sectors of the New Jersey economy.”
After the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862, which paved the way for establishing land-grant universities in each state, Rutgers professors George H. Cook and David Murray lobbied the New Jersey Legislature, which chose Rutgers over Princeton University and Trenton Normal School. In 1864 the Rutgers Scientific School was founded on a 100-acre farm on the outskirts of New Brunswick, purchased from the estate of James Neilson, to be the school’s experimental farm. Today, it is part of the George H. Cook Campus, home to the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and NJAES. Sixteen years later, in 1880, NJAES was created to help Rutgers fulfill its mandate as a land-grant institution, bringing outreach services based on science-based solutions and education to New Jersey’s residents. One hundred years ago, the Smith-Lever Act created the Cooperative Extension Service across the United States, allowing Rutgers to expand its vast wealth of knowledge to local communities.
The Center for Vector Biology, for example, one of the NJAES-affiliated centers, has led the effort to control the Asian tiger mosquito, which transmits a debilitating virus. “Mosquito control based on sound science and field research began in New Jersey and has been a priority at NJAES for more than a century,” says Robert Goodman, executive director of NJAES and also executive dean of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. “The center’s work is essential in providing protection for vulnerable populations against existing and threatened mosquito-borne viral pathogens.” •