April 22, 2010

Building oyster reefs promotes jobs and the environment


Oyster reef restoration, new green jobs, and a blue sky were all part of an Earth Day get-together on Spurgeon Stowe’s headboat, the Miss Hatteras, on Monday, April 19.  More than 40 people gathered at Oden’s Dock in Hatteras village and prepared to climb aboard the boat and head out into Pamlico Sound. 

Their destination was a shallow stretch of water called Clam Shoal, where an artificial oyster reef was being constructed.  Their purpose was to celebrate Earth Day by learning about and sharing information about this North Carolina Estuary Habitat Restoration project.

The importance of the project and others like it became apparent during the course of the day, as a number of speakers described how oyster reefs serve as natural breakwaters and provide habitat not only for oysters but for fish and other marine life.

The oysters themselves filter and clean the water as they feed, improving water quality, as well as providing jobs for oyster harvesters and delicious cuisine for seafood lovers.  Commercial and sport fishermen benefit from the creation of the reefs, and the construction work itself provides jobs for a number of North Carolinians, from the quarry workers who provide the limestone marl which is being used to create the reef, to truckers who deliver it, to tug boat crew members and backhoe operators who place it on the shoal. 

Everyone benefits, and for North Carolina, it is a win-win situation.

The project is a collaborative effort by a number of groups, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The North  Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, the North Carolina Coastal Federation, North Carolina State University, the University of North  Carolina Wilmington, and North Carolina Sea Grant, as well as Stevens Towing and  Cape Dredging. 

The North Carolina Coastal Federation, which has been working on reef restoration projects with other state organizations since 2006, wrote the proposal  requesting funding from NOAA.  The funding comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which provides monies to “put Americans to work while restoring our coasts and combating climate change.”

There are 50 such projects nationwide, ranging from New England’s salt marshes to the coral reefs of the Pacific Islands, chosen from more than 800 proposals. About $167 million was provided to NOAA by the Recovery Act to fund these marine and coastal habitat restoration projects, of which $5 million was designated for North Carolina’s oyster reef restoration. 

The air was nippy as the Miss Hatteras set out, but the water was calm and the ride smooth.  Along the way we passed the Island Express, the tugboat which makes the continuous 60-mile run from Belhaven to Clam Shoal and then back, running 24 hours a day, pushing the barges that shuttle the rock for reef-building.  Simon Rich, manager of Stevens Towing, the company that owns the tugs and barges, explained that the barges deliver 600 pounds of rock per day, weather permitting.  A smaller tug, which draws less water, is used to push the barges across the shallows to the project. 

A shout drew our attention as we approached the oyster reef, and we looked out at a small tugboat and a large black barge loaded with rock.  The rock is a sedimentary limestone marl, composed mostly of fossilized shells, brought over from a quarry near New Bern.  On the deck of the barge, a huge green and orange excavator was lifting shovelfuls of the marl and lowering them into the water, depositing them in cone-shaped piles whose positions were determined and marked with buoys ahead of time by North Carolina Marine Fisheries personnel. 

Their shape and positioning were designed to be optimal oyster habitat, allowing maximum hard surface areas as well as sufficient room for aeration and growth.  Oyster larvae, or spat, would be allowed to naturally colonize the reef.  The top of the mounds were about six feet under water, allowing clearance for boats to pass overhead.  The reef created would be an oyster nursery, meant not for harvesting but for procreation.

Upon anchoring at the site, we were joined by several of the men who were working on the project, and then we all gathered in the stern of the boat. 

Allen Burrus, Dare County commissioner, welcomed everyone and gave a brief introduction.  Other speakers included John Gray, NOAA Director of Legislative and Government Affairs NOAA and ARRA Projects, who reminded us that this was the 40th anniversary of Earth Day and of NOAA.  He talked about the projects NOAA was overseeing, creating what he called blue-green jobs and restoring more than 8,000 acres of habitat. 

The next speaker was Dr. Louis Daniel, Director of the North Carolina Marine Fisheries, who addressed the value of oyster habitat restoration in North Carolina and stressed the fact that fish depletion was due not only to overfishing but also to poor water quality, which would be improved by the oyster reefs. 

Todd Miller, Executive Director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, acknowledged and thanked the men who were working on the reef, and Darren Burrus, head of the Cape Dredging Company of Buxton, said that they would love to continue the work.  Miller also acknowledged Christina Miller, who wrote the proposal for the oyster reef project, and other staff members of NCCF.  Simon Rich III, Managing Partner of Stevens Towing, stressed the importance of the jobs created, which allowed him to put back to work men he had been forced to lay off. 

 One of the highlights of the day was the surprise presentation of NOAA’s  Excellence in Restoration award to the North Carolina Coastal Federation.  John Gray presented the award to Todd Miller, describing how Todd had started the organization in 1982 and how the organization, now comprised of 18 staff members, had worked to make this and other projects like it possible.

Further discussion was shared during a lunch of local seafood prepared by Kaia’s Kitchen in Hatteras village. 

“Oyster reefs in North Carolina,” stated Craig Hardy of the North Carolina Marine Fisheries, “have been fished on for many years.  Skipjacks and sharpies were used way back for dredging pristine oyster beds, and they have gradually declined.  The Clam Shoal project is being built on a previously existing artificially created reef.” 

David Eggleston, Director of the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology at N.C. State University, explained the student oyster restoration work which he oversees.  High school students in Dare, Hyde, and Carteret Counties measure oyster spat settlement by hanging strings from docks near their homes and then counting the number of oysters which attach themselves to the strings.  Graduate students at NCSU work on such projects as studying oyster fecundity and circulation and determining the usage of previously built reefs by finfish.

Reef construction at Clam Shoal has been slowed down somewhat by wind and bad weather, but is expected to be completed by the first week of May, when oyster larvae, or spat, are moving in the water. 

Construction of other reefs is expected to continue in the Pamlico Sound, including an upcoming project near Ocracoke Island.  With lunch over, the men from the project returned to the dredge to continue their reef building, and the Miss Hatteras headed back to Oden’s Dock, returning her guests to shore.


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