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Oyster Reef Restoration

Building Oyster Reefs off the NC Shore: Good for plates and people

To date, TNC has built 1,900 linear feet of oyster reef off Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, Swan Quarter National Wildlife Refuge and our own Nags Head Woods Preserve. Here, building reef.

Oysters were once plentiful in North Carolina waters. Native Americans relied on them for food. Archeologists found mounds of shells, called middens, which were left behind by these early residents.

In 1586, at the request of Sir Walter Raleigh, scientist Thomas Harriot traveled to Roanoke Island where he described the sheer number of oysters: "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.”

Oyster Economy

Oysters played a significant role in the colonial economy. Coastal North Carolinians traded bushels of oysters for other supplies.

After the Civil War, oysters’ role as a commodity grew. Oysters that had once been bartered for supplies were sold for cash in a market that craved plump east coast oysters. Oyster houses were built along the coast and large canneries followed to supply northeastern markets with North Carolina oysters.

A struggle sprang up between the folks who harvested in shallow waters with tongs, who were largely North Carolinians, and the folks who harvested in deeper waters with motorized dredges, who often came from out-of-state. Thus began the “Oyster War of 1891,” where armed North Carolinians, supported by their legislature and governor, threatened to shoot out-of-state dredgers.

Problems with Overharvesting

The war on oysters began in the next century – unsustainable harvesting depleted oyster beds and onshore development, timbering and agricultural uses degraded habitat. In 1987, a new problem hit oysters: Dermo, caused by a parasite that doesn’t affect humans, wiped out large numbers.

Many of us love a plump North Carolina oyster whether it is raw, steamed or fried. But, there are other reasons for restoring oyster reefs that affect even the vegans among us.

  • Oyster reefs provide habitat for other marine life
  • An adult oyster filters about 50 gallons of water day, improving water quality
  • In a world where sea level is rising, they provide valuable protection for shoreline – building new oyster reefs will lessen wave action and reduce shoreline erosion

The Nature Conservancy began its oyster reef restoration work in 2002, creating an oyster shell recycling program with local business, using those shells to create offshore reef. Today, that work continues with volunteers helping the Conservancy bag shells, which are placed in water to attract young oysters, called spats. The Conservancy is also using a kind of rock called marl as the basis for new oyster reefs.

Our goal? Well, we would love a return to healthy oysters reefs all along North Carolina’s shoreline – restoring a cultural, economic and environmental pearl. 

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