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Shoring Up Support for Oysters in the Estuary

By: Katia Griffin-Jakymec
June 06, 2016

What is an oyster worth? Look past its sharp, hardened exterior, and many see a salty, buttery delicacy best consumed in months containing the letter "R.” But new research on restoration initiatives in North Carolina has brought to the surface many of the unique and substantial benefits oysters provide to both the ecosystem and the regional economy. An article in Coastal Review Online last month, “In Praise of the Humble Oyster,” highlights recent efforts to increase comprehensive oyster restoration as well as conservation initiatives being conducted by a network of partners throughout the state.

In 2015, the N.C. Coastal Federation and partners developed a five-year plan entitled the “Oyster Restoration and Protection Plan: A Blueprint for Action 2015-2020,” which lays out seven goals and dozens of actions targeting the restoration and enhancement of oyster reefs throughout the estuary and coastal region. The first annual report, “State of the Oyster: 2015 Progress Report” highlights significant recent progress made towards implementing the blueprint. 

A common theme of the achievements highlighted in the 2015 State of the Oyster report was recognition of the substantial contributions oysters make to North Carolina’s economy.  Several new reports have recently been released assessing the value of oyster and other shellfish habitats.  APNEP commissioned one such report, which evaluated the economic return of shellfish habitat enhancement programs conducted by the N.C. Department of Marine Fisheries from 2010 to 2015.  The report, conducted by RTI International, found that every $1 invested in coastal habitat programs provided North Carolina with $4 in benefits.  The Oyster Sanctuary Program is one of three programs highlighted in the report, which also features the Artificial Reef Program and Shellfish Rehabilitation Program.

 

So-called "reef balls" provide a substrate to which oyster larvae can attach, forming artificial oyster reefs.

The report complements another report commissioned last year by the N.C. Coastal Federation, which evaluated the relationship between oyster restoration and what’s known as the “blue economy”: sectors and industries that directly draw on coastal resources, such as fishing, recreation, and tourism. It also found that oyster restoration projects also provide extensive engagement with area schools and volunteer groups, building civic capacity in the region’s youth, and providing opportunities for hands-on learning for students and the public.

 

The coastal economy depends on the stewardship and preservation of natural resources like oyster reefs. 

Oysters provide many benefits to ecosystem and the economy:

  • They improve water quality. Oysters are “filter feeders"--bivalve mollusks like mussels and clams that filter out sediments, toxins, nutrients, and plankton from the water around them, and release clear, filtered water back into the ecosystem. A single oyster can filter up to two gallons per hour, and anywhere from 25 to 50 gallons of water per day. In addition to improving water quality, this filtering also reduces the turbidity (or cloudiness) of water, allowing more sunlight to penetrate the surface and boosting submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) growth, which provides vital habitat and nursery grounds for estuarine fish, crabs, shrimp, and other aquatic species.

 

Oysters are adept filters of algae suspended in the water column, demonstrated here after two hours. Credit: Maryland Seafood.

  • They provide habitat. Oyster beds are a critical habitat for commercially and recreationally important fish and wildlife species, bolstering the fishing and tourism industries. These beds act as a nursery for crabs and shrimp to hatch and feed on phytoplankton, while larger fish like sea bass and flounder forage among the oyster beds for their next meal. Without these beds, the hundreds of species that depend on them would be deprived of essential habitat. 
  • They prevent erosion.  Oyster habitats buffer shorelines from erosion. Oyster beds also offer valuable protection for coastal regions by acting as a buffer against soil erosion and powerful waves. They are so strong and fast-growing that scientists are even looking into using them as a way to protect shorelines from rising sea levels! As they grow rapidly (up to four inches a year), these beds offer a viable alternative to artificial bulkheads or seawalls.

 

Oyster reefs provide a buffer for shorelines, absorbing wave energy and preventing erosion, like this one at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort.

  • They are a source of food. In addition to being a famed delicacy, oysters are a source of protein and vitamins A, E, C, and B12, as well as zinc, iron, calcium, and selenium.
  • They provide jobs. In addition to serving as both a commercially and recreationally important species themselves, oyster restoration and preservation efforts have created new job opportunities in North Carolina and Virginia.  Mariculture in particular is a growing industry, boosting the local economy while providing ecological benefits to North Carolina’s estuaries. Jobs in the related fields of tourism and recreation also depend on oysters and the habitat they provide for fish and other species.

When you consider how many benefits oysters provide for the coastal environment as a whole, it’s easy to understand why they’re considered a “keystone” species. Since so many other species depend on them, when oyster numbers dwindle, biodiversity and ecosystem health also suffer.

The benefits, or ecosystem services, that oysters provide are closely tied to their life cycle. An oyster starts its life as larva, guided by currents. Over time it grows a “foot” and sinks to the bottom of the shoreline, attaching itself to whatever hard surface they can find (ideally an adult oyster). This is how oysters join to form spiky oyster beds, which are a common sight in the Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine system. These oysters can live up to 40 years and grow up to eight inches long if left undisturbed.

 

 Credit: N.C. Sea Grant.

So what threats are facing oysters in the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary? Overharvesting, diseases, poor water quality, and habitat loss from residential and commercial development are among the factors that have contributed to the gradual decline of oyster populations. Unfortunately, this isn’t news.  Once a thriving industry, oyster numbers in North Carolina have decreased by 90% since the 1900s. What is new is the wave of creative and collaborative initiatives spearheaded by scientists, agencies and members of the public to bolster oyster populations and support the health of the entire estuarine ecosystem in the process.

No single entity or organization is able to tackle the threats facing oyster populations on its own. That’s why partnerships between government agencies, non-profit groups, universities, community groups, and boundary organizations such as APNEP are so important. Scientists, fishermen, and members of the public have pooled their resources, skills and knowledge to develop a comprehensive strategy to support thriving oyster populations in North Carolina. To keep track and find out how you can become involved, visit the website recently launched to serve as the state’s clearinghouse for oyster restoration and protection efforts: www.ncoysters.org.   

 

Learn more:

                  Press release | Full report

  • Coastal Restoration and Community Economic Development in North Carolina

                Full report

 

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