Oyster aquaculture in the United States provides jobs in coastal communities, provides a sustainable source of seafood and can help improve ocean health by providing habitat for fish and improving water quality. But, COVID-19 and the resulting restaurant closures have led to a dramatic decrease in demand for farmed shellfish, leaving oyster farmers across the country struggling to market their products.
This lack of demand has caused a growing surplus of oysters that are becoming oversized for the traditional “raw bar” market. This accumulating supply could lead to a potential collapse in oyster prices. Combined with growers’ loss of income from restaurant sales since March 2020, this puts more than 3,000 jobs in the oyster aquaculture industry at risk.
Oysters are more than just a niche, higher-end food. 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. Multiply that by the hundreds of thousands of oysters forming a reef and the living water filtration service they provide can be significant. The reefs also 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.
But there’s a way to protect oysters and the benefits they provide and help oyster farmers impacted by the economic downturn. The Nature Conservancy is working with its partners to purchase more than 5 million surplus farmed oysters and use them in nearby oyster restoration projects—a win-win for these environmentally friendly businesses and for our ocean ecosystems.
Created in collaboration with Pew Charitable Trusts, U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, the Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR) initiative aims to extend $2 million in payments to oyster farmers over the next two years. The program expects to support more than 100 shellfish companies and preserve over 200 critical jobs in northern New England, the Mid-Atlantic and Washington state. Simultaneously, over 5 million oysters will be deployed to rebuild 27 acres of imperiled native shellfish reefs across 20 restoration sites.
The initiative will also establish a $1 million Shellfish Growers Resilience Grant program with Pew, NOAA and shellfish growers’ associations as collaborating partners to address some of the underlying challenges growers face. The goal is to pave the way for a viable and sustainable U.S. shellfish industry that benefits the ocean and the communities which rely upon it.
Are you a shellfish grower interested in participating in the SOAR program?
Click here for more information on how to apply.
In which states will oyster growers be eligible for the oyster purchase program?
The SOAR-oyster purchase program will be deployed in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington State.
How did TNC, Pew and partners select the states in which the oyster purchase program is deployed?
The geographies identified represent a mix of grower need, restoration opportunity, gaps unaddressed by other similar programs and available funding in these states.
How many growers are likely to receive funding for the program?
The aim is to extend funding to at least 100 shellfish growers in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington State. The total funding available for oyster purchase across all states is $2 million.
Will all growers in each of the above states be eligible for the program?
We would like to make the program available to as many growers as possible in our target states; however, regulations reflecting biosecurity considerations will limit the shellfish growers that are able to move oysters to the permitted and “shovel-ready” restoration sites.
TNC and Pew are working with state regulators and restoration practitioners to identify the growing areas that will be eligible for participation in each state to make this process is as transparent as possible.
Recognizing that not all growers may participate, we will aim to ensure that growers ineligible for the shellfish purchase program will be considered for the Shellfish Resiliency Grant program, including those located in the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico.
What is the timeline for availability of the funding for the oyster purchase program?
The Purchase Program for applications from growers in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts opened October 1, 2020.
We anticipate opening the New York, New Jersey and Maryland Program for application in November 2020.
We anticipate opening the Washington State program for application by January 2021.
How will prices for purchased oysters be set?
For the first East Coast phase of the program, TNC and Pew is consulting with the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, state growers’ associations and/or aquaculture extension agents and state agencies to agree on appropriate prices.
A price will be set on a state-by-state basis to reflect regional differences. Different prices for different growing methods may be set (e.g. container vs bottom grown).
Prices should be considered as dynamic and may be adjusted or adapted to reflect demand for the program.
Several principles will guide pricing decisions:
- Balancing a fair and meaningful price for farmers with conservation objectives to secure a reasonable volume of product for restoration activities, and the need to be judicious with donated funds.
- Utilizing available market data and reported prices to justify pricing decisions.
- Ensuring the program does not compete directly with the wholesale market.
- Ensuring prices are comparable or consistent with other similar programs that may exist.
How many dollars’ worth of oysters will each grower be able to sell to the program?
This will be assessed on a state-by-state basis. However, as a guiding principle, to ensure we reach as many eligible growers as possible, we aim to develop a fixed maximum sale price for any individual grower in a first round of program implementation.
If demand for the program among eligible growers has not been met by the round one purchase, a second round of purchases may be offered based on grower revenues and scaled to the remaining funds.
How will oysters be transported to oyster restoration sites?
When practical and cost effective, TNC/Pew would prefer to extend funding to shellfish growers to transport product to the restoration site or specified drop-off area to provide additional cash flow to growers. Where this is not possible TNC/Pew will assist in arranging transport. Funding for transport is in addition to the $2 million allocated for oyster purchase.
Since the cost of transport is highly dependent upon the specific circumstances of the restoration activity and location of the grower, these costs will be negotiated with growers on a case-by-case basis. Any remaining transport budget will be applied to additional oyster purchases.
When will the shellfish growers resiliency grant program be developed?
We anticipate developing a request for proposals for the Shellfish Growers Resiliency Grant program in early 2021.
Is there a plan for the SOAR program to expand to other states and continue beyond the coming year?
The existing funding for the SOAR program is geographically limited and does not extend beyond 2021. Pew and TNC will work to leverage additional funds to address the greater impacts of COVID and extend the program into the future.
Want to participate in the SOAR Oyster Purchase Program?
Please fill out the short form below, and we’ll be in touch about opportunities. Asterisks indicate required fields.
The Nature Conservancy, working with the Pew Charitable Trusts, NOAA and local shellfish growers’ associations, will be establishing a shellfish growers resiliency grant program and issuing large-and small-scale awards to shellfish growers. The goal is to pave the way for a viable and sustainable U.S. shellfish industry that benefits the ocean and the communities which rely upon it.
Please check back in early 2021 for more information.
We’d like to thank the following collaborators for their insight, expertise and support building out the Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR) initiative.
- The Pew Charitable Trusts
- East Coast Shellfish Growers Association
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- NOAA Fisheries, Office of Aquaculture
- NOAA Fisheries, Office of Habitat Conservation
- NOAA Research, National Sea Grant Office
- Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
- Maine Department of Marine Resources
- University of Maine Cooperative Extension
- Maine Sea Grant
- Massachusetts Aquaculture Association
- WHOI Sea Grant/Barnstable County Cooperative Extension
- Coastal Conservation Association of New Hampshire
- New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services
- New Hampshire Fish and Game
- New Hampshire Sea Grant
- Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership
- UNH School of Marine Sciences and Ocean Engineering at the Jackson Estuarine Lab
- Barnegat Bay Partnership
- Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory, Rutgers University
- NJDEP Division of Fish & Wildlife
- NY/NJ Baykeeper
- Partnership for the Delaware Estuary
- Stockton University
- Billion Oyster Project, NYC
- Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program
- Long Island Oyster Growers Association (LIOGA)
- Stony Brook University and the Shinnecock Bay Restoration Program
- New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
Shellfish Aquaculture Resiliency and Reefs Coordinator, The Nature Conservancy
Global Aquaculture Strategy Specialist, The Nature Conservancy
Maine: Boze Hancock, Senior Marine Habitat Restoration Scientist, The Nature Conservancy, firstname.lastname@example.org
Maryland: Mark Bryer, Program Director, The Nature Conservancy, email@example.com
Massachusetts: Stephen Kirk, Coastal Program Manager, The Nature Conservancy, firstname.lastname@example.org
New Hampshire: Alix Laferriere, Coastal and Marine Program Director, The Nature Conservancy, email@example.com
New Jersey: Zack Greenberg, Officer, Conserving Marine Life in the U.S., The Pew Charitable Trusts, firstname.lastname@example.org
New York: Aaron Kornbluth, Officer, Conserving Marine Life in the U.S., The Pew Charitable Trusts, email@example.com
Washington: Molly Bogeberg, Marine & Coastal Conservation Specialist, The Nature Conservancy, firstname.lastname@example.org
Rachel Winters, Associate Director of Media Relations, The Nature Conservancy, email@example.com