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Climate Change Adaptation Project Expands

New Swanquarter oyster reefs are doing well

Oysters are part of North Carolina's economic, historic and cultural value.

Story Highlights
  • Newly constructed oyster reef is already doing what it's supposed to - building up and protecting the shoreline behind it.
  • TNC hopes oyster reef restoration will go from Alligator River to Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge and beyond.

This summer, Albemarle Climate Change Adaptation Project Director Brian Boutin got to experience what is just about as close to instant gratification as you can get in his world with the creation of a new oyster reef off of Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge.

“We put this reef in a little more than a month ago,” he explained during a July visit to the site. “You can see the shore that’s forming behind the reef.”

It was a fairly windy day, but the two 300-foot segments of marl reef on either side of the Bell Island Fishing Pier were doing their job: Incoming waves from Rose Bay were breaking gently across the oyster reef. Further along the shoreline, where there was no new reef offshore, the waves were clearly cutting into the shoreline.

Pilot project expands

This reef represents a new part of the climate change adaptation project. What began three years ago as a pilot project on the nearby Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is now expanding to other refuges. The Nature Conservancy has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create 400,000 acres of wildlife refuges in the area. Almost 40 percent of all national wildlife refuges on the eastern seaboard are located in the area, so solutions found here can be replicated on vast swaths of public coastal lands. 

There has been a concerted effort to build oyster reefs along North Carolina’s shore. Jim Hardin, compliance manager with Grady-White Boats, understands firsthand the importance of building new reefs. Hardin, who chairs the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, has been involved in creating new oyster reef since 2003.

“I just turned my logs in,” he said this summer, referring to the log volunteers use to keep track of the number of oyster shells bagged. “I’m just shy of bagging three tons of oyster shells for new reefs.”

New reef construction can take several forms. While the Swanquarter reefs are constructed from marl, which is a sedimentary rock made up of limestone and other minerals, other reefs use bags of recycled oyster shells.

“The whole thing is that people are saying, ‘Hey, we can make a difference,’” Hardin explains. “We can start by getting oyster reefs back into the water to benefit everyone.” Continuing on to explain the importance of oysters, he says, “An adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day, so creating sanctuaries benefits the water quality. It benefits the fish and other animals that need the habitat. And, it reduces erosion from waves.”

That’s why Hardin was eager to participate in building the new reefs at Swanquarter. The Smith Family Foundation, which was created by Grady-White Boats’ founder Eddie Smith, was the lead contributor on the project. Boutin, who has been tireless in his efforts to raise money for the adaptation project, leveraged that with additional funding from a partnership between the FishAmerica Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Restoration Center. 

Oysters as part of North Carolina’s history and economy

Huge middens, mounds of old oyster shells uncovered by archaeologists, attest to the sheer number of the mollusks in earlier times. So do the words of earlier explorers. Scientist Thomas Harriot visited Roanoke Island in 1586. His report back to Sir Walter Raleigh described the resources: “There is one shallowe sounde along the coast….where for the space of many miles together in length and two to three miles breadth, the ground is nothing else.”

The oysters were an economic driver in North Carolina’s colonial economy. Coastal North Carolinians bartered them for other goods. In the latter part of the 18th century, a whole economy sprang up around the oyster, with oyster houses and canneries built to supply folks in the northeast with the shellfish. That led to overfishing, which depleted the stocks. The problems were magnified by onshore development, timbering and agriculture that degraded habitat. The late 20th century brought the arrival of Dermo, a parasitic disease that is devastating to oysters. It is estimated that today’s oyster population is less than 10 percent of its historical range.

Restoration ties nicely to locals

The Nature Conservancy, led by Northeast Steward Aaron McCall, has been in the reef restoration business since 2002, when McCall helped to organize an oyster shell recycling program on the Outer Banks.

Hardin, of Grady-White Boats, is an avid fisherman and says that building new reef fits nicely with his company’s work.

“This is a personal thing with Eddie Smith. He was raised in the outdoors and has always been an outdoorsman. Most people involved with hunting and fishing understand that the original conservationists were the hunters and fishermen. This is a long term solution to helping keep our waters in pristine condition.”

Kelly Davis and her family have a personal stake in that outcome. She and her family live on a farm just down the road. Her 12-year-old son Coleman was recruited by Boutin to monitor water quality at the site. Davis, who moved to the area as a biologist at Mattasmuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, is homeschooling her children with an emphasis on the area’s natural resources.

Coleman, Kelly, her 14-year-old daughter A.B. and Coleman’s friend Camin Randall made a visit to the site in July. Coleman and Camin busied themselves with a seine net while Kelly chatted and A.B. documented the visit with photographs. “The whole family participates,” Kelly explained. “It is a good learning experience.”

She added with a laugh. “This is a rural area. There is no swim team for the kids. People live far apart, so there aren’t a lot of organized activities for kids. That’s part of living in Hyde County; you’ve got to squeeze the juice out of what’s here.”

The work gets the ultimate thumbs up review from the young scientist. “This is pretty cool,” Coleman explained as he identified the critters he had netted. Boutin agreed. “It is pretty cool.”

*     *     *

Note to Readers: The Conservancy is sad to say goodbye to Project Director Brian Boutin, who is leaving to become the Lead Fisheries Ecologist for the South Florida Water Management District’s Coastal Ecosystem Section. Boutin joined the Conservancy in 2009 as the project’s first director. His expertise and enthusiasm will be missed by all of us who have the fortune to work with him. 

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