Rebuilding North Carolina’s stocks of shellfish is both an environmental and an economic priority. The state’s current oyster resources amount to just 3 percent to 5 percent of what they were in their heyday in the late 1800s. Members of UNC Wilmington’s marine biology faculty and staff are working hard to help rehabilitate what was once a vital industry along our coast.
An important part of that work is a new data-driven online tool that lets shellfish farmers identify and evaluate waters best suited for shellfish-cultivation leases.
As with many other seafood sources, wild populations aren’t keeping up with demand or with environmental stresses. That is why researchers at CREST Research Park are focusing on helping to develop shellfish aquaculture in North Carolina. Despite significant potential, our aquaculture is lagging behind our neighbors in Virginia.
Besides the economic benefit of helping coastal communities economically, restoring oyster populations will provide what we call “ecosystem services.” Oyster beds filter coastal waters, provide habitat for other valuable species, buffer currents, recycle nutrients and stabilize shorelines. “Aquaculture operations provide many of the same ecosystem services,” explained Troy Alphin, a “benthic ecologist” on our staff. That job description means he is a specialist in what lives on the bottoms of oceans, sounds and other waterways. He and Martin Posey, Ph.D., a professor of marine biology, created and are managing the North Carolina Shellfish Siting Tool, which is available for public use.
Shellfish aquaculture will take off, grow and thrive, Alphin said, “If you create the right conditions.” Those conditions include an efficient regulatory system, a good supply of “seed” oysters adapted to North Carolina waters, and detailed knowledge of where to establish shellfish farms. (I discussed our shellfish hatchery, which is breeding those ideal North Carolina oyster strains, in a May 2016 article.
“The biggest stumbling block to getting these businesses in the water,” Alphin said, “is that the operators couldn’t tell what the waters were like” at any particular site. That meant in both a scientific sense – how salty is the water, what are the bottom and the currents like – and in a regulatory sense, such as whether state authorities have closed them to shellfish harvesting. A host of rules, some of them involving public health, others about navigation and other economic issues, can affect whether a body of water is suitable for a shellfish lease.
It’s worth explaining how leasing works. When North Carolina established shellfish leases in the early 20th century, the idea was that the most fertile, productive areas would remain open for harvest by anyone with a shellfish license. But less productive areas could be built up by depositing old shells, seeding with larvae and other methods, to produce valuable harvests, too. To provide an incentive for watermen to make those investments, exclusive leases were offered.
In recent years, the number and acreage of shellfish leases has not increased much, despite growing demand. Federal data from 2007 show just 85 North Carolina farms selling cultured shellfish. The state’s production amounted to barely more than 1 percent of the total value for shellfish on the East Coast, and that proportion remains very low.
Some shellfish leases follow traditional old-fashioned methods. Shells may be deposited in the shallows to build up a reef and give baby oysters a place to grow. Then, typically, wild “seed” oysters attach themselves to the shells and begin their growth cycle. But our primary focus is on more intensive cultivation, often using cages or other confinement methods, and seeding with hatchery-raised larvae. In addition to the potential for much greater yields, these new aquaculture methods will allow oyster harvest year-round. That’s not possible with wild oysters in North Carolina waters.
Would-be shellfish farmers have said that a major obstacle is knowing how to find, and make sense of, all the widely scattered data that affect their ability to get a lease and make it profitable.
The Shellfish Siting Tool was developed over several years “to pull all that information together in one place” for the benefit of would-be leaseholders, Alphin said.
The tool is a website that provides a wide range of public data, much of it in graphic form. Anyone can see, on interactive maps of the state’s coastal waters, what a particular tract’s status is, both legally and in environmental terms. Different “layers” of data can be viewed, with detailed statistics available in pop-up boxes at the click of a mouse. An especially useful feature is the ability to see, using a simple “slider,” how things have changed from year to year. The tool has been online for about a year now, helped with start-up funding from North Carolina Sea Grant.
It’s very much a work in progress. Our team is busy adding new datasets, or improving existing datasets, and seeking feedback from stakeholders of all kinds. Those include current and potential shellfish growers; the government and academic researchers who provide much of the data; state and federal regulators; and local governments. To spread the word, the developers have conducted focus groups, workshops and demonstrations, again with financial help from N.C. Sea Grant. In those presentations, Alphin said, “We say this has saved shellfish growers a lot of time and effort.” For example, a potential aquaculturist may be very familiar with a particular creek, channel or shoal, but might not know about its regulatory limitations. Discovering those issues in a few minutes online will sharply reduce delays for those wanting to get into the seafood industry.
“I’m getting calls several times a week,” Alphin said, “from people using the tool.” Those calls help him and his colleagues refine how the data is presented online. The feedback also helps them show various agencies “how big the data gaps are.” For example, busy researchers may need to be reminded of how many years it’s been since certain measurements have been taken in a particular waterway.
Now that the tool is online and in use, Alphin said, his team is working to go beyond just presenting the various slices of data for the user to interpret. They are developing models that will evaluate all that data for a particular site. The model will ultimately determine its suitability for aquaculture and its potential for restoration as a productive shellfish ground.
“This is a way to keep a traditional fishing family on the coast,” Alphin said, or to help people move into aquaculture from other careers.
UNCW CREST Research Park is a front-runner in marine biotech research and development. Researchers are exploring the potential of natural products derived from the sea to treat or cure human diseases and meet other important needs.
Discover why rising biotechnology and life sciences groups from all over the country are moving to UNCW CREST Research Park. UNCW CREST Research Park offers top-notch commercial laboratories available for lease at affordable rates, flexible terms, and innovative product development opportunities that are unmatched by any other park. Connect with CREST at [email protected] today.
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