North Carolina Oysters
Oysters play an important role in our coastal communities. As well as improving water quality, oysters also create habitats for fish and other marine life. They provide a positive economic impact for the state and due to their distinctive flavor and texture they are a desirable dish for many.
Let’s take a look at how oysters play such a vital role in North Carolina.
Oyster Reef Habitat
North Carolina has a unique oyster habitat. Habitats range from deep water reefs in the Pamlico Sound to low relief patch reefs in intertidal waters and reefs fringed by salt marshes along the estuarine shoreline. It is the only state that has both types of reefs on its coast.
The Value of Oyster Reef Habitats
An oyster’s life begins as a free-floating larva, a tiny, swimming creature. Eventually, they attach to a solid surface and remain there for the rest of their lives. As oysters accumulate on rocks, old shells, wrecks, and piers, they grow together, shell by shell.
As the reef takes shape, it becomes an excellent shelter for other sea life.A healthy oyster reef can support 300 different kinds of organisms, including southern flounder, shrimp, clams, and blue crabs. In addition to being a food source and protection for marine life, oysters provide additional benefits such as:
- Water Quality- Oysters make our waters healthier. Because oysters feed by filtering algae from the water, they function as a natural filter and improve water overloaded with nutrients. Depending on the conditions, an oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. As the water becomes clearer and cleaner, there can be ample underwater grasses to support a safe habitat for juvenile fish and other marine species.
- Coastal Protection – In some locations, oyster reefs can protect underwater vegetation and waterfront communities from some effects of waves, floods, and tides. Well-established eelgrass beds help stabilize the bottom, providing additional resilience against wave action. Healthy reefs and established vegetation protect valuable habitat. Depending on where the reefs are located, they may also be able to reduce wave energy, prevent erosion, and fortify wetlands as a protective barrier.
- Seafood – Oysters support a viable commercial and recreational fishery that is an important part of North Carolina’s cultural heritage and economy. Oyster reefs also support the production of crabs and finfish valued at over $62 million annually.
Oysters were once plentiful in coastal areas throughout the country and in the late 1880s, oysters from North Carolina were harvested at unprecedented rates and shipped by boxcar to San Francisco and New York.
Today, however, oyster populations are at historic lows. Erosion from development, wetland loss, unsustainable harvesting practices and excessive nutrient pollution have proved devastating for the shellfish. Diseases have caused problems, too.
Recognizing the vast benefits provided by oysters, the N.C Division of Marine Fisheries, non-government organizations and interest groups are working hard to maintain and restore the oyster populations.
Oyster Restoration Efforts
- Oyster Patch Reefs – These are typically smaller scale restoration efforts undertaken by non-governmental organizations, universities, or concerned citizens.
- Cultch Planting – To create reefs, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries annually deposits tens of thousands of bushels of oyster shell, marine limestone and/or clam shell — collectively called “cultch” — in shellfish waters from the Shallotte River to the Pamlico Sound.
- Sanctuaries – Larger scale oyster sanctuaries are constructed throughout North Carolina’s sounds. As a result, these sanctuaries serve as marine protected areas that are typically closed to oyster harvest, but open to hook and line fishing.
- Oyster Farming – Due to the fact that oysters will eventually be harvested, oyster farming or aquaculture is not always seen as a restoration method. However, oyster leases provide numerous ecological benefits including increased water filtration, additional habitat for other fish and other ecosystem services such as nitrogen sequestration. Cleaner waters result from more oysters in the water.
With these types of restoration efforts by the State and other agencies the oyster population is growing however oysters are still listed as a species of concern.