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A fresh take on the region's salty affairs

Restoring Estuaries, One Bag of Recycled Oyster Shells at a Time

By: Caroline Lamb and Danielle Herman, communications specialists for the North Carolina Coastal Federation, September 19, 2016

Volunteers and Dr. Lexia Weaver, coastal scientist with the federation, in an assembly line to pass oyster bags.

In honor of National Estuaries Week, hosted by Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE) and its member organizations, we would like to take a minute to appreciate all of the economic and ecological benefits of estuaries. There are so many reasons these habitats, where freshwater meets the salty ocean water, are so crucial— and just plain awesome. The natural functions of estuaries put them at the center of coastal health.

We first celebrated National Estuaries Day in 1988, and it has since expanded it into a week-long celebration. Many groups host events that highlight the role of estuaries in keeping the coast healthy and boosting coastal economies— check those out here. Here are just a few of the many ways that estuaries help achieve a healthy coast:

  •  Estuaries contain marsh grasses that filter polluted stormwater runoff and help prevent shoreline erosion
  •  Estuaries serve as nurseries for fish, as “Half of the juvenile fish habitat from Maine to Florida is represented by the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary,” according to these fast facts about estuaries, and;
  •  “About 90% of the United States' recreational fisheries catch and 75% of its commercial catch spend time in estuaries.”

This year, we are excited to announce that Estuaries Week has been officially recognized at both federal and state levels. Governor Pat McCrory signed a proclamation commending the observance of Estuaries Week, September 17-24, 2016 by all North Carolina residents.  The proclamation cites tourism, commercial fishing, recreation, education and marine habitat protection as reasons for the week-long recognition.  The United States Senate unanimously passed a bi-partisan resolution commemorating Estuaries Week, with strong support from the U.S. House of Representatives. 

"Healthy estuaries ensure that the coast remains an ideal place to live, work and play. Because of their natural benefits, we're excited to celebrate estuaries for a whole week on both a state and national level,” said Todd Miller, executive director of the federation.

At the North Carolina Coastal Federation, we celebrate estuaries every day through salt marsh, shoreline and wetland restoration projects, watershed planning, advocating for oyster sanctuaries in the Pamlico Sound and teaching estuary lessons in and outside of the classroom— and the list doesn’t end there.

We believe the best approach for keeping the coast a healthy place to live, work and play is best summed up by our slogan—Working Together for a Healthy Coast.

And we’ve been busy doing just that. One of the federation’s ongoing projects is a living shoreline project at Trinity Center in Pine Knoll Shores, in partnership with Sound to Sea, an environmental education program at the center. This shoreline— called a “marsh toe revetment”— will extend 500 feet along the southern part of the Bogue Sound and will provide habitat, encourage oyster growth and protect the shoreline from erosion. It’s nice to look at, too.

A living shoreline at Jones Island. Photo by Vance Miller.

A living shoreline at Jones Island. Photo by Vance Miller.

Living shorelines, which can involve the use of marsh grass and oyster reefs to help curb erosion, maintain the natural functions of the shoreline while also conserving and creating habitat. The reef, which is made of oyster shells recycled and delivered from Quality Crab Co Inc. in Elizabeth City, act as a buffer between water and land. The shorelines naturally grow over time and in doing so, increase their effectiveness and create more habitats.

Living shorelines are a natural alternative to shoreline armoring methods such as bulkheads. Bulkheads and other methods of shoreline armoring lead to habitat destruction, costly repairs and increased erosion over time. While bulkheads reflect wave energy along the shoreline, leading to worsened erosion, living shorelines absorb that energy.

The oyster shell reef attracts oyster larvae, which then permanently attach to the oyster shells and become spat. As the spat grows into adult oysters, living oyster reefs are created. The incredible oyster, which you can read about in a previous Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership (APNEP) Soundings post here, help filter water and provide habitat for crabs, fish and other marine animals. One adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, keeping estuaries clean and healthy. More oysters lead to better water quality and healthier fisheries.

With the help of 150 volunteers and 11 truckloads of oysters with 250 bags per load, approximately 300 feet of the shoreline has already been built. The shoreline will eventually extend to 500 feet. The project is part of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Ecosystem Resiliency Grant. 

The project supports multiple objectives in APNEP’s Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) related to the protection and restoration of estuarine habitat. The CCMP contains actions geared towards the use of living shorelines and restoration of oyster habitat. In fact, the federation facilitates the Oyster Action team, convened to restore, protect and enhance oyster populations in North Carolina. The team implements actions aligned with both the CCMP and the 2015 North Carolina Oyster Blueprint plan. APNEP anticipates initiating the Living Shorelines Action team in late 2016, which will pursue initiatives to facilitate the use of living shorelines as an alternative to hardened stabilization techniques.   

The federation and APNEP have a long history of partnering to raise awareness of the ecological and economic importance of our estuaries at local, state and national levels.  Together, we achieved designation of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary as one of “America’s Great Waters” by the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Waters Coalition. This designation was earned in recognition of the size, uniqueness, productivity and cultural importance of the estuarine system, and comprehensive efforts of partners to properly manage and protection the region’s resources. The federation has been a long-time partner of APNEP, with members serving on the Policy Board, Science and Technical Advisory Committee, and multiple monitoring and action teams.

During this year’s National Estuaries Week, we are celebrating along the entire coast by hosting a variety of events, including an oyster reef construction event. These events are best known for the long assembly line of volunteers passing oyster bags down a line to eventually be placed on the reef. We invite anyone interested in building a stronger coast to join us for our oyster reef construction event at Trinity Center on September 20.

Oyster bags move down the assembly line until they are eventually placed onto the reef by Sam Bland, coastal specialist for the federation. Photos by Caroline Lamb.

For those interested in staying engaged with Estuaries Week happenings,use hashtags #EstuariesWeek, #EstuaryLove and #NCCoast on social media accounts. If you are interested in seeing what others are sharing around the country, check out the tagboard!  You can learn more about the federation's Estuaries Week events at, or find other regional events here.

And don’t forget to spend some time on the water this week. Whether you explore a wetland, check out an Estuaries Week event or just take a fishing trip, thank an estuary for its role in helping you enjoy all of the activities that the coast has to offer.


Coastal Review Online: Estuaries: Understanding Their Vital Roles, Part I (Sept. 20, 2016)

Coastal Review Online: Estuaries: Protection and Restoration, Part II (Sept. 21, 2016)

Learn about estuaries in the federation’s 2016 edition of Our Coast (pg. 11-14)

Learn about living shorelines

Trinity Center project

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