Coastwatch Summer 2010
Rebuilding the Economy, One Oyster at a Time

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COASTWATCH Summer 2010 Issue | Story by BENJAMIN YOUNG LANDIS


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Skiffs in Cedar Island, North Carolina are loaded with bushels of oyster shell as part of a $5 million federal investment in local ecosystems and fisheries. Photo credit: Ben Young Landis.


Pamlico Sound's economy and ecosystems are getting a much-needed boost this year, courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. More than 130 jobs are being created for contractors, barge workers, commercial fishermen, truck drivers and many other coastal residents — all from a $5 million Recovery Act grant to restore 49 acres of oyster reefs in local waters.

The grant was awarded to the North Carolina Coastal Federation, a nonprofit organization that is managing this oyster restoration program with the cooperation of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) and others.

But the scientific studies that helped determine the optimal locations for these new oyster reefs took place years earlier, and included research conducted through the N.C. Fishery Resource Grant (FRG) Program. FRG is funded by the North Carolina General Assembly and administered by North Carolina Sea Grant.

VIDEO EXTRAS: America Invests in North Carolina's Estuaries

Click on each photo to watch YouTube videos from the Pamlico Sound sites:

1. JOBS RESTOREDoystervideo1

2. HATTERAS SANCTUARYoystervideo2

3. DOWN EAST OYSTERSoystervideo3

Earlier FRG studies led by North Carolina State University researcher David Eggleston and Ocracoke commercial fisherman Eugene Ballance focused on how water currents shape the distribution of oyster populations in Pamlico Sound. Now, the findings are being used to inform and guide this federal stimulus project.

Ecosystem and economic benefits are expected. The Recovery Act project hires local workers and commercial fishermen to create artificial reefs out of limestone rock and old oyster shell. The hard rock and shell substrate will attract the tiny, free-drifting larvae of oysters to settle upon.

Eventually, new oyster colonies will form, creating crucial habitat for baitfish and gamefish, removing excess bacteria and nutrients out of local waters, and providing future harvests for working watermen.

GRAY GOLD

The Recovery Act project began in October 2009, when the Coastal Federation, along with its DMF and local business partners, started building a large oyster reef off of Stumpy Point at Crab Hole. That site and a second major reef off of Hatteras Island at Clam Shoal are now complete.

Workers deployed 54,450 tons of gray limestone between the two sites, which total almost 47 acres. The limestone for the Hatteras reef was quarried from New Bern. Coincidentally, the composition of this rock includes fossilized remnants of long-dead bivalves — shellfish from the past serving as foundations for shellfish in the future.

The limestone, of course, doesn't swim out to Hatteras by itself. Stevens Towing, a company partly based in Edenton, was able to bring back four laid-off workers and activate 14 furloughed workers with project funding.

"Last year, I had to lay off a number of people from my company," says Simon Rich III. the general manager of Stevens Towing Company. "When this project came through, I hired many of them back."

Rich's three crews were soon working 24 hours a day on the project, alongside employees from Cape Dredging in Buxton.

Smaller reefs are being created elsewhere in Pamlico Sound, but using old oyster shell gathered from oyster recycling efforts and trucked in from an oyster shucking house. Since March, commercial fishermen have been paid $2 a bushel to plant 41,000 bushels of oyster shell throughout North Carolina. DMF recruited the fishermen, whose smaller, more agile vessels can reach shallower restoration sites inaccessible to large barges. DMF plans to distribute 10,000 bushels of shell in Hyde County, 11,000 bushels in Carteret County, 18,000 bushels in Onslow County and 2,000 bushels in New Hanover County.

Overall, the project has brought some welcome media and political attention to communities in the Outer Banks and Down East.

Local newspapers and news stations reported on the project. In early April, Secretary Dee Freeman of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources visited a Cedar Island reef planting demonstration. John Gray, the director of legislative and intergovernmental affairs for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), visited the Hatteras site later in April.

There, Gray presented NOAA's Excellence in Restoration Award to Todd Miller, executive director of the Coastal Federation, for the federation's long-time work on coastal issues. Miller was quick to deflect some of the praise. "This award honors not only our work, but that of our many partners," Miller said. "We don't go at it alone — that doesn't work. We live where we work, and take on projects and issues that the communities value."

hatterasoyster_20100419_035smTons of limestone have been planted in the waters off Stumpy Point and Hatteras. Photo credit: Ben Young Landis.

In addition to the North Carolina Coastal Federation, North Carolina Sea Grant and NC DMF, institutional partners on this Recovery Act project include North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Have you or someone you know benefited from this Recovery Act project? Tell us your story. Write to Katie Mosher at katie_mosher@ncsu.edu

MORE PHOTOS: Go to our Facebook page for galleries of fishermen and contractors working on this project.

READ OUR press release about this oyster restoration project.

BENEFITS REVEALED

Other studies funded by North Carolina Sea Grant will help shed light on the success of oyster restoration projects. Past research by Troy Alphin, Martin Posey and Jay Styron, as well as efforts by Cynthia Cudaback, have investigated the optimal shape for new reefs and the movement and settlement success of larval oysters. Fisherman Eugene Ballance will lead another FRG project this year using side-scan sonar to "see" how well oyster reefs are rebuilding (see 2010 FRG press release).

As for determining any immediate benefits of the Recovery Act project, North Carolina Sea Grant will work with the N.C. Coastal Federation to evaluate the economic benefits of the restored oyster reefs. Over the coming year, Brian Efland, Sea Grant enterprise development specialist, and N.C. State's Eggleston will help study recreational fishing activity at these reefs through aerial fly-by surveys.

An ecological component of that study will also observe whether the new reefs attract higher abundances of key species like striped bass, blacktip sharks and red drum.

"We're going to see if the fishing economy improves with this stimulus project," Efland says. "I'm excited to talk with all the local folks and visitors and hear what they think of these new oyster reefs."

The text of stories that appear in Coastwatch may be reprinted with the following credit: Reprinted from Coastwatch, a publication of North Carolina Sea Grant. For a complimentary copy, call 919/515-9101 or send an e-mail to sandra_harris@ncsu.edu.

For reprint requests regarding photos in Coastwatch, contact Katie Mosher, 919/515-9069, or katie_mosher@ncsu.edu.