regard oysters as delicious delicacies or repulsive lumps of slime,
North Carolinians should rightfully rejoice at the construction
planned this winter of a new oyster sanctuary at the mouth of the
Neuse River. Down-home oyster roasts and upscale oysters-on-a-half
shell dinners are hotter than ever in the local food movement, but
more oysters also mean cleaner water and a more resilient ecosystem.
As part of
public-private partnership, the North Carolina Coastal Federation and
the state Division of Marine Fisheries is readying construction of
the Swan Island Oyster Sanctuary on 40 acres of a 60-acre site in
Pamlico Sound, the first of a multi-year effort to significantly
expand the state’s oyster industry.
“I think it’s
huge, said Steve Murphey, the division’s habitat enhancement
section chief. “It really puts us on a new level. These are above
the levels we were planting in the ‘90s.”
The reef will be
constructed in long mounded ridges of mostly recycled oyster shells
and fossil rocks about 3,500 feet long, he said, with areas between
the 40 acres of reefs left open to allow for habitat for other marine
life. The work will be done 20 acres at a time. Once it’s done, it
will resemble a wide ladder, with “rungs” between the ridges
spaced 70 to 90 feet apart.
In addition to
construction of the reef, the state also plans to build a place where
baby oysters can settle in and hire two staff for the program that
leases water bottom for oyster farming. All are funded by a $1.3
million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration and matching state funds.
that the Swan Island project represents an important step toward the
state’s long-term goal of having 500 oyster reefs that will
substantially increase oyster population, and by extension, the
commercial harvest. North Carolina is far behind its neighbors
Virginia and Maryland, which can boast of a booming oyster industry.
thing to understand about oyster habitat is that oysters are their
habitat,” Murphey said. “So if you only put out 100-200 bushels
of oysters for cultch every year, you never gain any ground. If the
goal is to really increase production of oysters, then you really
have to ramp up oyster habitat.”
means any material, usually oysters shells, that is laid down on
oyster grounds to furnish points of attachment for the spat, or baby
HAND IN GLOVE
larvae will settle naturally on such constructed reefs and when left
alone, will grow and spawn millions of eggs that float on currents,
ideally landing on a cultch planting. Fish also find the reefs to be
The location of
the cultch site has yet to be determined, said Erin Fleckenstein, a
federation biologist. The Division of Marine Fisheries will hold
public meetings in the fall to help site the cultch plantings.
The Swan Island
sanctuary bears a critical inter-relationship to the cultch site, she
Larva travels in
the water column from the sanctuary. When they settle they
is to create the babies that land on the cultch areas,” she said.
“They feed each other and they work hand-in-glove.”
sanctuary will not be open to harvest of oysters, it will be open to
hook and line fishing. The federation will hire a contractor to
deploy the material and build the reef.
was selected, Fleckenstein said, by a stakeholder working group that
determined an appropriate area with no environmental and commercial
fishing conflicts that did not overlap with existing shellfish areas.
Construction is expected to begin in February and be completed within
process will select other areas for sanctuaries and cultch plantings
in 2017 and 2018, when an additional $1.5 million a year is
anticipated from the NOAA grant. Although a state match is
technically not required to secure the money, Fleckenstein said, a
minimum equal match of non-federal dollars is recommended to maintain
a high ranking for the application.
long-term vision of the partnership is building sustainable wild
oyster reefs, Fleckenstein said, and a robust oyster aquaculture
industry, a winning combination of economic opportunity and
oyster can filter about 50 gallons a day, removing nutrients and
cleaning the water. The reefs can also serve as natural breakwaters
and help stabilize shorelines.
“It all comes
back to this overall blueprint we have for oysters,” she said.
“It’s a comprehensive plan that looks at all things oyster.”
That is good
news for North Carolinians who fish, farm or eat oysters.
that we’re finally getting attention from Raleigh,” said Jay
Styron, president of the North Carolina Shellfish Growers’
Harvest of wild
oysters is currently about 15 percent of what it was at its height in
the early 1900s, Styron said, when 1.8 million bushels were
harvested. Pollution, disease, overfishing and habitat loss conspired
to decimate the shellfish, and by the mid-1990s, fewer than 35,000
bushels were harvested.
“When you look
at it from a historic perspective, it’s still a drop in the
bucket,” Styron said about current harvest.
reefs and cultch plantings will go a long way toward restoring the
oyster industry in the state, he said. “In due time, it should
increase it,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever have a
wild harvest that will fulfill the market.”
oyster mariculture – aquaculture in saltwater – comes in.
There are two markets in the state, Styron explained: shucking
oysters that are wild-caught, and oysters-on-a-half shell that are
grown on farms. Styron owns an oyster growing operation on Cedar
Island, Carolina Mariculture Co.
market is new and growing nationwide, he said. “People are
discovering oysters again,” Styron said.
Not only are
they nutritious, he said, they’ve become popular in the food
market, pairing upscale oyster meals with select wine or beer. The
farmed oysters have the same sized and shaped shells, making portions
easy to control. They’re the same species as the wild oysters, but
they grow faster and their shells are not as, well, wild.
“So we give
them a more consistent product,” Styron said. “The wild-caught
oyster is like getting a big bag of potato chips. Ours is like a
container of Pringles.”
6.5 acres of sound bottom, producing about 200,000 to 250,000 oysters
a year. It takes about a year or less for seed oysters to reach
market size, with peak production at 18 months; wild oysters need
about three years. Also, he can harvest all year long; the commercial
season for wild oysters is October to March.
room enough for farmed oysters and shucking oysters.
is so different,” he said. “We don’t compete with the wild
oyster customers. The market we’re going for is white-tablecloth
owner of I & M Oyster Co. in Lowland, said that he thinks that
North Carolina should do “spat on shell” as Virginia and Maryland
have done in their very successful oyster restoration program. The
method cultures spat in tanks to set on oyster shells, where they
grow into a dozen or so tiny oysters that are not as vulnerable as
when larvae floats to a cultch to grow.
PLAYING CATCH UP
Carolina has a way to go to catch up to Eastern Shore oystermen, who
can catch their limit within hours.
“We had seven
or eight guys we were buying oysters from last year,” Mercer said,
“and I can probably count on two hands when they reached their
limit for the day.”
He said he
probably bought and sold a couple of thousand bushels of wild oysters
last winter. He said he pays the fishermen the same price the
Maryland Eastern Shore waterman are paid, over some local griping.
“I told them
it was the same as us stealing,” he said, “so I drove the price
up for the commercial guys.”
margin is about $5 bushel, so the more he moves off his dock, the
better for everyone. “I would love to have 400-500 bushels a
day,” he said.
Mercer is in his
second season of growing oysters, and estimates he has sold 400,000
oysters so far for the year. He has two 5-acre leases.
He said that the
two new staff members the state will hire for the shell bottom
leasing program can only improve service. Until now, all the leasing
has been handled by the shellfish map section, Murphey said, which
admittedly was not able to adequately provide the service.
need we have right now is it takes a lot of time to do site
evaluation,” he said. “It’s a lot of field work, a lot of boat
When the two
staff are hired, one person will divide time between field work and
sampling for GIS mapping. The other staff person will focus on data
analysis and communication with the lease applicant.
lease program, Murphey said, has been operated with a bare-bones
budget of $5,000, barely enough to pay for fuel. “So we’re real
excited to actually get a budget,” he said.
The state grants
10-year leases of public sound and river bottom. Leases are
renewable, but they must meet certain levels of production. There are
currently about 290 shellfish leases and franchises approved in the
BUYING OYSTER SHELLS
that the state buys oyster shells from every shucker in the state,
but the state’s recycling program has proven to be costly and
inefficient. At its peak, the state was handling 25,000 bushels a
year, he said. Now it’s 5,000 bushels.
to have a storage area, and then you’ve got to go get them,”
Between the need
for dump trucks and trailers, and staff time, he said, it is cheaper
to buy oyster shells in volume from commercial dealers. The state is
currently evaluating dealing with only the larger contributors.
Where Murphey is
upbeat about realizing big advances in management of oysters, some
veteran watermen will point-blank disparage the program; others say
they’re skeptical about putting more reefs in fishing waters.
that is good for the commercial guys as long as they allow
harvesting,” Mercer said. “Anytime the word ‘sanctuary’ is
put out there, to fishermen it’s a total closure.”
Dale Newman with
Newman’s Seafood in Swan Quarter, comes from a long line of
oystermen. “My dad is 72 years old,” he said. “His daddy worked
on sailboats oystering. I reckon my great-grandfather on my mother’s
side shucked oysters.”
experience, oysters naturally come and go. Back when he was younger,
he said, management meant harvesting them when they were there, and
leaving them alone for a while when they weren’t.
there has been a lot of criticism of oyster management, but he
believes that under Murphey’s leadership, Marine Fisheries is
working in a promising direction.
“I think we
need to give them a little bit of time,” he said. “We have had a
very hard time communicating with each other. We really don’t truly
understand each other. We’ve got to get together and manage the
oyster resource better than it’s been managed. We need to start
talking with each other and listening to each other a little bit.
they’re going to start doing things a little bit differently,” he
said. “I’d much rather be on the same page.”
article is provided by Coastal Review Online, an online news service
covering North Carolina's coast. Sam Walker is a reporter for the
Outer Banks Voice. For more news, features, and information about the
coast, go to www.coastalreview.org.)