Colonists pickled them in vinegar, cooked them in fat and used their shells for home construction and farming, giving the lowly oyster a vibrant role in the early Bayshore economy.
But by the early 1800s, the natural oyster beds first harvested by native Americans were dying in Raritan Bay, especially around Staten Island, according to historians. Industrialization and the dredging of channels for shipping eventually killed the hardiest of the remaining beds.
Now, oysters might make a comeback, and not just for food. This time, they could provide a natural barrier against the high waves from future storms.
That's the hope that has emerged from a federally backed program to come up with ways to bolster the shore's defenses.
The Asbury Park Press reports that the idea, being developed by landscape architects, research scientists, marine biologists and others, also focuses on ecological education and other measures to tie the reintroduction of oysters in Raritan Bay to the community.
Last week, Rebuild by Design, a program headed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and funded in part by charitable organizations, chose 10 out of 41 ideas conceived by 10 transnational, multidisciplinary teams.
Three of those ideas stand to benefit the Jersey Shore, from the Bayshore to Asbury Park to Barnegat Bay. All 10 ideas are expected to be funded with federal dollars. Five months of community interaction is the next phase.
The protection from oysters would come from oyster reefs and breakwaters made with a form of concrete that attracts the bivalves.
Those reefs and breakwaters would not lessen what's known as "still-water elevation," or flood height. But according to computer modeling, they would cut down on wave height, said Philip Orton, a scientist at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken who researches physical oceanography and storm surges.
It was the combination of flood water and the powerful waves on top of it that devastated Union Beach and other Bayshore towns during Superstorm Sandy.
Oyster reefs "cause waves to break," said Orton, the member of a team led by Scape/Landscape Architecture, which has an office in New York. The reefs would build up with oysters over time, acting as nature's "eco-system engineers," he said.
If the project commences as expected, it would start as a pilot program that would be studied for real-world data, Orton said. The project could grow to include breakwaters and oyster reefs around the Bayshore.
Flood height is an issue the Army Corps of Engineers could deal with using dune systems and other barriers, Orton said. The establishment of oyster reefs and breakwaters would not duplicate those efforts, he said.
The decline of oysters in the bay may have contributed to the scope of damage to communities around the Raritan Bay.
"It has also been a receptor for large quantities of domestic and industrial wastes, and, mainly for this reason, it is one of the most deteriorated estuaries in the United States," Clyde L. MacKenzie Jr., who has written on the history of fisheries in the bay, stated in a report for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The project would aim to improve the overall quality of the bay, including access and fishing, Orton said.
Asbury Park would stand to gain from the program in two different projects.
One idea is to bolster its infrastructure so it could remain a center of commerce and entertainment despite severe weather events. That could include a refurbished Casino building and an outdoor amphitheater that would double as a protective dune.
Another proposes to turn the boardwalk into a landscaped part of the oceanside that would protect the area and provide recreational activities along with the entertainment that the stretch already offers.
Drawing people away from the beach and into lesser-known features of Barnegat Bay is the gist of an idea by a team led by Sasaki Associates, a Massachusetts-based planning and design firm.
The plan to grow eco-tourism in that area might include hotels and restaurants, water taxis and bus routes, and piers that extended away from the ocean and into the bay, said Brie Hensold, an urban planner for Sasaki.
Elevated boardwalks would take visitors into the Pinelands for bird watching and other activities.
"It would help people see that the ecology of the beach goes much deeper," Hensold said.
Along with the boardwalk idea in Asbury Park and the plans for Barnegat Bay, the Sasaki group also proposes to improve the ecology of Natco Lake, on the border of Hazlet and Union Beach.