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Oyster Reef Construction Shows Huge Success
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The North Carolina Coastal Federation hoped to support the growth of 50 million oysters in coastal waters with its reef building plan.

It turns out the project is supporting 140 million oysters, almost triple the project’s initial goal.

“It’s a token of good news to close out 2020. We are so pleased with the success of this project and can’t wait to build on this work in 2021,” Erin Fleckenstein, coastal scientist and regional manager for the federation’s Wanchese office, told the Coastal Review Online.

Labeled the 50 Million Oyster Initiative, the project launched in Pamlico Sound in 2017. The federation, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, NOAA and other partners created the 40-acre Swan Island Oyster Sanctuary.

Oyster sanctuaries are areas dedicated to oyster repopulation that are open to fishing but not harvest. The ultimate goal is for adult oysters in the sanctuary to produce spat, or oyster larvae, that drift and attach to other oyster reefs.

More oysters means cleaner water

Construction of the Swan Island Oyster Sanctuary finished in 2019, and Division of Marine Fisheries scientists monitoring the site found oyster densities are as high as 2,000 oysters per 10.76 square feet, or about 136 million oysters. 

That’s good news for the health of the oyster population but also good news for the estuary. Each adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water per day, which means the 140 million oysters will filter about 7 billion gallons of water a day.

“We are very pleased with this sanctuary’s ability to grow oysters year after year, and will continue to monitor its performance as a reference for future sanctuary design and construction,” said Cameron Luck in a statement. Luck is an oyster sanctuary biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries. 

In addition to Swan Island Oyster Sanctuary, 3.5 acres of oyster reef were built as living shorelines along private property and in harvestable waters. Surveys show these reefs also support high densities of oysters, with each acre supporting more than one million oysters, according to the federation.

The oyster reefs in the sanctuary and living shorelines should bolster the overall oyster population in Pamlico Sound.

If you build it, the oysters will come

The Division of Marine Fisheries is creating cultch planting sites near the sanctuaries. The cultch sites are areas where oyster shell, marl or other material is placed to provide a base for oyster larvae to land. After the oysters have a chance to grow to legal size of three inches, in two to three years, these areas are open to harvest.

More reef building is planned for 2021. A new grant from NOAA and matching state funds will allow 5 acres of sanctuary to be created near Cedar Island as well as additional living shoreline.

UNC-TV Science

How to build an oyster reef

North Carolina started oyster reef restoration projects in the Pamlico Sound in 1996. One of the largest projects, Swan Island Oyster Sanctuary, covers over 50 acres! Watch the sanctuary construction process and learn more about how building oyster habitat helps create new reefs.

Funding for Sci NC provided by GSK (GSK logo).