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Researchers, State Look To Rebuild Oyster Numbers

By Jenny Callison, posted Jun 3, 2016

Roasted or raw, steamed or creamed, the oyster has been a favorite on breakfast and dinner plates at least since Roman times. Overharvesting to meet demand for the shellfish in the New World is one reason that the oyster population of Eastern Oyster has dwindled dramatically over the past century, making it a species of special concern for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries.

Declines in population are also due to environmental factors – deteriorating habitat quality, habitat destruction and water quality issues – as well as disease, according to Ami Wilbur, a University of North Carolina Wilmington marine biologist who directs the university’s shellfish hatchery, housed at the UNCW Center for Marine Science. 

The UNCW researchers are among several entities focused on rebuilding a healthy oyster population along the North Carolina coast. Each is taking a slightly different, though complementary, approach.

The shellfish hatchery’s mission is to produce and maintain oysters in the very early stages of their life and then share the oyster seed with aquaculture operations along the coast, Wilbur said. Currently the hatchery works with about six oyster farmers.  

“We provide them with seed, they plant it and we monitor [the oysters’ growth] over a two-year period. After that, we pick the best oysters and bring them back to the lab for production. The farmers can keep the rest, which is why they are willing to partner with us,” Wilbur said.

The goal is to develop strains of oysters that will thrive in North Carolina waters, so that oyster farming, as well as commercial oyster fishing, can become more economically viable for the long term.

“We look north to see how successful this can be,” Wilbur said. “In 2005, Virginia and North Carolina were about the same in aquaculture. Since then, Virginia started a selective breeding program because oysters in the Chesapeake Bay were experiencing tremendous mortality.”

That program has resulted in a rebounding oyster population there, supporting an industry of farmed oysters with a value of about $9 million per year, according to Wilbur. 

By contrast, North Carolina’s commercial oyster harvest as a whole was worth less than $4 million in 2014. That’s according to the Research Triangle Institute International’s economic analysis of the cost and benefits of a restored shellfish habitat in the state, published in April.  

The N.C. Coastal Federation is actively involved in helping to create more oyster habitat, in partnership with the state Division of Marine Fisheries. The federation deposits old oyster shells, grit and stones in as many nearshore marine locations as possible to create new oyster beds, said the Coastal Federation’s Ted Wilgis, who leads the organization’s oyster habitat restorations.

The Research Triangle Institute International analysis estimates that additional commercial fishing sales for oysters as a result of habitat enhancement grew from $100,000 in 2010 to $900,000 in 2015.

Although the coast from Swansboro south to New Hanover County produces almost half of the state’s oyster harvest, the options for habitat restoration are limited, Wilgis said, because only about 5 percent of the region’s water is open to oyster harvest. That’s due to stormwater pollution, which has closed much of the coastal area to the fishery. 

“If you look at maps of the southern [North Carolina] region in the 1970s, Howe Creek, Futch Creek, Hewletts Creek were all open to harvest,” he said. “Now they are permanently closed. Stormwater runoff, which has increased as those areas have become built up, brings bacteria into the waters.”

The Division of Marine Fisheries, in addition to helping with habitat restoration and environmental control efforts, works to protect the oyster population – and sustain the fishing and farming of oysters – through the way it issues licenses and leases. It is in the process of updating its Oyster Management Plan, which examines issues and recommends actions.

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