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Piles of oysters emerge from calm waters.
Oyster Reef Restoration An oyster reef restoration led by TNC's Gulf of Mexico Partnership. © Carlton Ward Jr.

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SOAR in Mississippi

A 2020 COVID program benefits oyster restoration in MIssissippi.

WHY: SOAR, Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration was created in 2020 to support struggling oyster farmers by purchasing unsaleable live oysters for deployment on restoration sites. The COVID pandemic caused restaurants across the country to close unexpectedly, many oyster farmers found themselves unable to sell their products.

WHAT:  The Nature Conservancy in collaboration with The Pew Charitable Trusts, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, created SOAR to address the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the oyster aquaculture industry.

WHO:  The University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United will receive (combined) more than 100-thousand dollars for oyster restoration efforts in Mississippi.

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 sustaining 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.

TNC has awarded a grant of 100-thousand dollars to the University of Southern Mississippi for the establishment of the Gulf Coast Shellfish Steering Committee. This USM project will focus on regulation of shellfish aquaculture by serving as an advocate for sound off‐bottom aquaculture policy and regulations thus improving public understanding and support for the shellfish industry.

Tom Mohrman, director of marine programs for TNC in Mississippi said, “From a TNC perspective this project supports our priority of restoring oysters in the Gulf of Mexico. This is an excellent way for people who are in the business to learn from each other and communicate between states and individuals. That communication will ultimately inform those who manage or regulate oyster restoration—including wild oysters and habitat”.

“This grant exemplifies the core work of the Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center by connecting industry, government and non-profits to reduce barriers to marine aquaculture production and grow the blue economy. We are excited to have USM facilitate this collaboration and assist the oyster industry in developing a common vision to advance the industry and grow aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Kelly Lucas, Ph.D. associate vice president for research, USM Coastal Operations.

Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United has been awarded more than 19-thousand dollars from the TNC SOAR program. MSCFU proposes to utilize requested funding to provide dedicated support for the oyster farming industry. This will include moderated workshops to assess industry needs, hiring dedicated multi-ethnic liaisons that can work directly with minority communities (Vietnamese, African American, Latino, and female) to improve diversity and inclusion in the oyster farming industry. MSCFU will work closely with industry to identify regulatory constraints or opportunities to increase marine conservation and then take actions in support of the needs of the industry while also working to improve diversity and inclusion within the industry.

While the SOAR 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 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.

“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.”

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.