By Michael Candelario
In our era of unprecedented environmental advocacy and awareness, there is a crucial preservation effort being made to restore and protect one of the most important facets of our waterways: oysters. Though many of us civilians may not appreciate how vital these critters are to the natural environment, oysters and other shellfish are essential elements in keeping local waterways populated and safe. Oysters filter the brackish water in which they live, acting as a sort of natural cleaner. Moreover, oyster beds themselves can foster loads of other species – a healthy oyster bed can house up to 300 kinds of flora and fauna. In North Carolina, oyster beds are particularly attractive to flounder and sheepshead, and serve as natural nurseries for baby gag grouper and black sea bass. But oysters are not just important to the living things around them. Studies of oyster reefs have shown that they literally “shore up” our shoreline, protecting the coast from erosion both by trapping sediment and by reducing the impact energy of incoming waves.
Happily, the NC Division of Marine Fisheries reports that our state has “one of the most active shellfish restoration programs in the country.” Since much of our local revenue comes from our sea life, and since oysters are such an integral part of keeping that sea life thriving, such a program is necessary. But how do we accomplish this superlative effort? Largely, our restoration program is attributable to two main components.
First, our state has cordoned off 12 previously viable oyster habitats and reserved these areas as oyster sanctuaries. Within the limits of an oyster sanctuary, harvesting any oysters is strictly prohibited, and so is the use of “bottom disturbing equipment” which may disturb the habitats. The sanctuaries provide safe locations for oysters to grow and produce eggs that will eventually filter out downstream and populate surrounding territories.
The other main component of North Carolina’s shellfish restoration program is the creation of artificial reefs. Since oyster reefs provide the “three F’s” – food, filter and fish habitats – creating more of them helps to foster ecological growth. Typically, artificial reefs are created using a mixture of used, recycled oyster shells and various other non-natural materials like decommissioned shipping vessels, railroad cars, concrete, pipe, rubble and even sections of manhole covers. This hodgepodge of craggy material is usually arranged into pyramidal piles to form the reefs. However, a newer technique is being tried out on Roanoke Island. Here, the NC Coastal Federation has “upcycled” abandoned and lost crabpots collected as part of a joint effort with Marine Fisheries. These old crabpots are staked down individually with rebar and will eventually serve as colonization-points for free-floating oyster spat. Though this has been done elsewhere, the NCCF is measuring the success of these crabpot reefs against that of “control” reefs made in the more common manner.
The Coastal Federation is no stranger to protecting our waterways. In previous years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration granted the federation $5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to dedicate to a large-scale oyster restoration project. Since then, the federation has developed 100 acres of oyster reef using more than 40,000 bushels of recycled oyster shells – that’s over 54,000 tons of reef material.
One would be tempted to bask in the high spirits that such numbers engender, but there is also a darker side to our state’s preservation policies. Though it is illegal to dump oysters in landfills, the North Carolina legislature defunded its oyster recycling program in July of 2013. Ted Wilgis, coastal education coordinator at the NCCF’s southeast office in Wrightsville Beach, explained that the controversial part of the program was the tax credit given to participating restaurants. This does not mean, however, that recycling oyster shells has come to a standstill.
Donald Jordan, owner of Jordan’s House of Seafood in Emerald Isle, participates in the program. “I get a trailer and they pick it up when it’s filled [with oyster shells],” he said. But the choice to participate in the collection program is not easy. Anybody familiar with the odor of used oyster shells can confirm that it is not exactly the most pleasant aroma to have around a restaurant. That’s part of the reason that the tax break was so important – it helped give owners a financial reason to deal with the stress of having a trailer full of old oyster shells outside. Now, without the aid of a tax credit to offset these kinds of anxieties, only Jordan’s restaurant and T&W Oyster Bar in Swansboro are listed by the Division of Marine Fisheries as participating Carteret County restaurants.
When the oyster recycling program was in its prime, it was highly successful. The 2012-2013 year – the final full year of the program’s operation – saw a collection of over 27,000 bushels of shells, adding to an overall total of 211,255 bushels processed and recycled in the program’s 10 year span. In July of 2013, the low-yield collection sites were closed as a result of the defunding. Even though high-yield sites were absorbed or grandfathered into other existent programs – which is why Jordan is still able to acquire a trailer to recycle his oysters – the numbers are not nearly as good.
Wilgis laments, “Since it’s been defunded, they’re at about 3,000-6,000 bushels per year.” That’s a staggering drop from the heyday of North Carolinian oyster recycling, and it is a bit alarming. After all, oysters have been designated a “species of concern” by Marine Fisheries.
There are still plenty of opportunities for laypeople to get involved in the state’s restorative efforts, however. Wilgis suggests that residents only purchase local oysters and that they make sure to recycle the shells. If we buy locally, we provide financial incentives to fishermen and restaurants to do their parts in oyster restoration and recycling. And if we recycle our shells, we provide the best possible material for creating even more reefs. These reefs have long-term benefits to our local environment. The NCCF reports that even 30-year-old artificial reefs remain active with flourishing habitats that can still be fished to this day. As Ted Wilgis summarizes, “oysters are vital to our coastal ecology and economy.”
Volunteerism is also greatly encouraged and appreciated by the state, and by NCCF particularly. There is a large volunteer base for bagging recycled oysters that can then be used to create the artificial reefs. Fishermen with old and retired crabpots can send them to the NCCF to serve as the new artificial reefs as well. So volunteers can have a huge impact on restorative efforts.
If volunteering is too time consuming, though, recycling is still convenient and easy. There are collection sites all throughout Carteret County – at the Town of Beaufort Public Works, on Hibbs Road in Newport, at the Marine Fisheries office in Morehead City, on Harker’s Island Road in Otway, and on Highway 58 in Cape Carteret.