OCEAN GATE (AP) — A New Jersey environmental group took a major step on Wednesday toward re-establishing an oyster colony in Barnegat Bay.

An American Littoral Society boat sets off in Barnegat Bay with a load of oysters (American Littoral Society)

The American Littoral Society held a send-off party in Ocean Gate for 1.5 million oyster spat, or seedlings, which were taken by boat to an artificial reef about a quarter-mile off a section of Berkeley Township called Good Luck Point.

Several small boats took part in the procession to bring the oyster spat to the reef. Staff and volunteers then dumped the spat into the bay and returned to shore.

The goal of the colony is to help improve water quality in the struggling bay; the shellfish naturally filter out pollutants and impurities. But there's another benefit as well: hardening the shoreline against devastating storms like Superstorm Sandy. The hard shells and the irregular, raised profile of the oyster beds help blunt the impact of waves and storm surges on the shoreline.

The colonies also serve as important habitat for fish and crabs, which are vital to the recreational fishing and boating industries along the bay.

"We are putting the pieces back in the bay, and we are doing it by pure willpower," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. "Ultimately, restoration of the bay and fixing its problems will have to be solved by the community but this shows we are on the right path."

The send-off party comes about three months after the group hired a barge to dump 160 tons of whelk shells onto the bay floor. Oysters, which are naturally attracted to shells, attach themselves and grow.

Because oyster shells are comparatively hard to come by, the group chose the much larger whelk shells as a substitute. But the Littoral Society also has started a shell recycling program in which a restaurant will retain the shells of oysters eaten by customers. The group will then pick up the shells and add them to the reef.

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