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50 Million Oyster Initiative now supports 140 million oysters

By Erin Fleckestein, North Carolina Coastal Federation

Good news for oysters! The North Carolina Coastal Federation and partners set out to restore 50 million oysters to coastal waters through their 50 Million Oyster Initiative. In the end, they nearly tripled the that goal with 140 million oysters living on 43 acres of newly created oyster reefs.

The initiative launched in Pamlico Sound, where the federation, state Division of Marine Fisheries and partners created 40 acres of new oyster sanctuary between 2017-2019. Monitoring of the Swan Island Oyster Sanctuary by the Division of Marine Fisheries in 2020 indicated oyster densities as high as 2,000 oysters per meter squared on this reef. This translates to roughly 136 million oysters on the oyster sanctuary alone, when the reef architecture is taken into consideration.

“We are very pleased with this sanctuary’s ability to grow oysters year after year, and will continue to monitor its performance as a reference for future sanctuary design and construction,” said Cameron Luck, oyster sanctuary biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries.

In addition to the highly successful Swan Island Oyster Sanctuary, an additional 3.5 acres of oyster reef were created as living shorelines and patch reefs throughout the state along private property and in harvestable waters. Monitoring results from these patch reefs indicate they also support high densities of oysters, with each acre supporting more than 1 million oysters.

All in all, the 50 Million Oyster Initiative supports nearly 140 million oysters throughout coastal North Carolina. Each adult oyster is capable of filtering 50 gallons of water per day. That means those 140 million oysters will filter seven billion gallons of water — every single day.

“It’s a token of good news to close out 2020. We are so pleased with the success of this project and can’t wait to build on this work in 2021,” said Erin Fleckenstein, coastal scientist and regional manager for the federation’s Wanchese office. “A new grant from NOAA and matching state funds will allow us to build another 5 acres of sanctuary in 2021 near Cedar Island and to continue our living shoreline projects as well.”

The success of the 50 Million Oyster Initiative is to be celebrated for all the myriad benefits that these oysters, and the effort to restore them, bring to the coast. The 50 Million Oyster Initiative provided jobs for contractors, fishermen, construction workers, truck drivers and many others during the construction of the reefs. The reefs are now busy providing fish habitat and improving water quality, which benefits both commercial and recreational fishermen, the tourism industry and the coastal environment as a whole for years to come.

“Oysters are the bedrock of our estuaries. When oysters are healthy, they support a healthy coastal environment and economy,” said Fleckenstein.

Oyster sanctuaries provide a haven for oysters to repopulate. The adult oysters in the sanctuary will produce spat — oyster larvae — which drift and attach to other oyster reefs. Sanctuaries are open to hook-and-line fishing, but not to harvest — but as the oyster populations in the sanctuaries increase, the overall amount of oysters in Pamlico Sound will, too. The increase in oyster population will bolster fisheries and improve water quality.

Cultch planting sites nearby will work hand-in-glove with the sanctuary location. The cultch sites are areas where the Division of Marine Fisheries plants oyster shell, marl or other appropriate material to provide a base for oyster larvae to land. After the oysters have a chance to grow to legal size — three inches, in two to three years — these areas are open to harvest.

Siting of the sanctuaries and cultch areas is guided by the division’s field based data collection and modeling efforts from North Carolina State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Total funding for the Swan Island Oyster Sanctuary included nearly $3.1 million dollars in state appropriations and $3.3 million in grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Community-based Restoration fund. Additional funding was provided by Grady White Boats and private donations from federation supporters.

More information on oyster restoration work is available at nccoast.org/oysters, or contact Erin Fleckenstein, coastal scientist and regional manager at the Wanchese office, at erinf@nccoast.org or 252-473-1607. To support the federation’s oyster restoration efforts, consider making a charitable donation by “adopting an oyster,” nccoast.org/myoyster.

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