Oyster Restoration by Diane Lea

The history of Pamlico Sound and Hatteras Island is a compelling story of the first Native Diane LeaAmerican inhabitants and later European explorers who were blessed with the bounty of the area’s sounds, inlets, creeks and marshes.  Archaeological evidence and historic journals describe mountains of discarded oyster shells, known as “middens,” that testify to the abundance that was part of what was often called “this goodliest land.”

According to the Coastal Review Online, this goodliest land just got a crucial push in the right direction with the recommendation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for a $9 million grant that will fund 17 coastal and marine habitat restoration initiatives, including $1.28 million to the North Carolina Coastal Federation for a Pamlico Sound oyster restoration project.  The Coastal Federation was founded in 1982 by Todd Miller, the director, to preserve North Carolina’s wetlands and sounds.  Since 1998, the Federation’s oyster initiative has planted 70,000 bushels of oyster shells in the state’s sounds.

In addition, the North Carolina Oyster Shell Recycling Program, established by the Legislature in 2003, has designated oyster shell drop-offs at 126 public recycling sites in Dare County and 22 other counties that have pulled in more than 110,000 bushels of shells.

When the new grant is formally approved, the Coastal Federation will undertake a ten-year program to create a network of oyster sanctuaries in Pamlico Sound.  This concerted effort to restore the productivity of our beautiful water environment and all that depend on it takes advantage of the special habitat of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary system, the second largest estuary in the continental United States, that provides just the right mix of salt and fresh water.  Ted Wilgis, the Coastal Federation’s coastal education coordinator, points out that oysters need that mix.

Another factor in oyster restoration is the oyster’s habit of staying put.  An Our State magazine staff article, “The Oyster Way,” describes the oyster as never moving.  The female oyster releases her eggs into the water and when the water temperature hits 68 degrees, the eggs are fertilized by male oyster sperm that’s also floating in the water.  Within a short time, the young oyster larvae dive down deep into the estuary to find solid oyster reefs to cling to.  The reefs where they mature also provide habitat for 26 species of crabs, shrimp, and fish that are important to North Carolina’s commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, and restaurants and other businesses.  It is estimated that every acre of oyster reef annually produces $1600 in commercial landings of finfish and crustaceans.

The pay-out of the oyster project will be more than lots of good eating for us all.  Pat Montanio, director of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Habitat Conservation, states, “When we make smart investments in habitat restoration, we not only help sustain fisheries and recover protected resources, we also use these projects to provide additional benefits, like protecting coastal communities from flooding and erosion and boosting economies through increased recreational opportunities.”

And those investments provide jobs.  In his blog, “This Old State,” Jack Betts notes that two Pamlico Sound sites have been identified for reef rebuilding, a 22-acre site near Stumpy Point known as Crab Hole and a 25-acre site within sight of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse called Clam Shoal.  Betts itemizes the workers needed to accomplish the restoration.  They include truckers who carry large chunks of limestone marl from a quarry in New Bern to a dock in Belhaven where they are loaded on to barges.  Tugboat operators are needed to push the barges to the sites in Pamlico Sound and moor them near shallower water where drivers of huge loaders and skid steer loaders take the marl from the barges and place it on the Sound floor in cone-shaped mounds about 75 feet apart.  Those oyster reef structures attract fish and other Sound critters, and within months they are covered in oyster spat (baby oysters).

This is a major new program of major importance to the Outer Banks and to North Carolina.  So let’s hear it for the oyster and for the folks at NOAA and the North Carolina Coastal Federation who are working to restore the oyster to our scenic sound waters.  We are still living in “the goodliest land.”

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