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oyster farmers at Fishers Island Oyster Farm
Fishers Island Oyster Farm Oyster farmers on the water © Julie Qiu Photography

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The Nature Conservancy seeks to develop resilient shellfish farming that benefits ocean health

The Shellfish Growers Resiliency Fund builds on the success of the SOAR initiative, supporting conservation and innovation in U.S. aquaculture

Today, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the world’s leading conservation organization, announced the recipients of the new Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR) Shellfish Growers Resiliency Fund (Fund). One million dollars in awards are being provided to shellfish farmers and aligned organizations across the United States who are raising the bar in the aquaculture industry on conservation, innovation, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The Fund is a continuation of the hugely successful SOAR initiative, created by TNC in collaboration with The Pew Charitable Trusts, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, to address the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the oyster aquaculture industry.

When the pandemic caused restaurants across the country to close unexpectedly, many oyster farmers found themselves unable to sell their product. SOAR was created to support struggling farmers by purchasing unsaleable live oysters for deployment on restoration sites. Since its launch in October of 2020, SOAR has supported 125 shellfish farming companies and sustained over 450 jobs across seven states. The more than 3.5 million oysters purchased have helped rebuild nearly 40 acres of imperiled native shellfish reefs across 25 restoration sites.

While the oyster purchase program was initially geared towards solving the immediate challenges faced by farmers due to the pandemic, with markets recovering, the SOAR team is now focusing on building resiliency in the industry in order to mitigate the impact of future challenges. Awards are being distributed to 37 projects across 16 coastal U.S. states to support initiatives that encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion in the shellfish industry; diversify products and marketing streams; encourage grower participation in marine conservation efforts; and enhance sustainability of farming operations.

For example, in Maine, four projects were funded, including the Maine Aquaculture Association’s work to establish a “Maine Oyster Trail” to encourage gastro-eco-tourism in the state, and Adam Campbell’s efforts to design and test wood floating oyster cages as a sustainable alternative to plastic aquaculture cages. Among those that will support diversity, equity and inclusion in the shellfish industry, an Oceans Alaska project will create a hatchery internship program for Tribal youths to encourage Native American communities to engage in shellfish farming. In the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United will be creating training and outreach materials to engage Viet and Latino fishing communities in shellfish farming.

Oysters are more than a fine dining fixture—they’re fantastic water filterers and natural buffers for coastal communities. Farmed or wild, a healthy adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water daily, removing excess nutrients and other pollutants in coastal waters, often caused by runoff of land-based agriculture. Oyster reefs, which can be made of clusters of hundreds of thousands of oysters, help protect shorelines from erosion by serving as natural buffers against rising tides and hurricanes. But despite the many benefits they provide, oyster reefs are the most imperiled marine habitat on Earth. Globally, over 85% of oyster reefs have disappeared due to overharvesting, diseases and habitat modification.

“Shellfish farming is one of the most sustainable ways of producing food, and in some cases can even be restorative, when it comes to the health of some of our most fragile marine ecosystems,” said Robert Jones, TNC’s Global Lead for Aquaculture. “By investing in the farmers and organizations, we’re not just contributing to our conservation goals, we’re supporting livelihoods and coastal communities. We also believe that creating a more diverse industry will bring new ideas, innovations and solutions to some of the planet’s greatest challenges.” 

“These projects will support sustainable economic growth, and they’ll also improve the resilience of coastal habitats—which in turn can provide valuable benefits, from greater storm protection to more jobs to cleaner water,” said Aaron Kornbluth, a senior officer with Pew’s conserving marine life in the U.S. project. “Shellfish growers can be ideal partners in conservation, and we’re excited to be building connections between them and scientists, resource managers, and the public.”

Formed in early 2021 under SOAR, the Fund is a partnership between TNC, The Pew Charitable Trusts, NOAA, NRCS, state management agencies and shellfish growers’ associations. The priorities for the Fund were established with the support of a diverse Steering Committee made up of representatives from government agencies, growers, aquaculture associations, academia, and NGOs.

To find out more about the Fund and the SOAR program visit https://www.nature.org/SOAR.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.