Oyster Reef Restoration project in Pamlico Sound underway

Oyster Reef Restoration project in Pamlico Sound underway

New Bern, NC – INTRO - Efforts to rebuild oyster fisheries in coastal North Carolina are getting a boost with the help of federal stimulus dollars. George Olsen has more.

The current numbers on oyster reefs when compared to the historical record are not good.

"I know historically our harvests are about 10% of what they were 100 years ago. I think we're looking at numbers in that range in regards to the extent of the current reef population."

Todd Miller, the executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation. Toward alleviating that problem, Miller says the state Division of Marine Fisheries has a master plan to establish oyster reefs in the Pamlico Sound. Thanks to a five-million dollar grant the Coastal Federation received from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration from its portion of the federal stimulus package, that master plan is getting a jump-start.

"The Div of Marine Fisheries has a program where they are attempting to go out and build the reefs. It would've taken them 6-10 years to do the work we're going to accomplish over the next 12-15 months so it greatly speeds up the process of doing this work and repairing the environment in N-C."

The current project involves the construction of two oyster reefs in the Pamlico Sound in waters off Dare County. Limestone boulders are quarried from a New Bern mine, transported to Belhaven, and then loaded onto barges which currently head to Crab Hole off Stumpy Point. When that reef is complete they'll start heading to Clam Shoal behind Hatteras Island. The limestone will be piled into mounds about six feet high in a checkerboard pattern covering about 25 acres at each location.

"Each barge is capable of holding about 300 tons of rock. That's enough to do two mounds. So to do the 54,500 tons of rock that will be moved in the course of this project will need about 180 barge loads of material to be transported out into the Sound."

Everything leading up to and beyond those barge loads is what leads Miller to project job creation of around 140 jobs throughout the project.

"That includes the people in the mines digging the rock, the truck drivers transporting from New Bern to Belhaven, the loading facility in Belhaven that is loading the barges, the barge company and all its operators, and we have a marine contracting crew that is working on the deployment end."

Miller also believes there will be a long-term economic benefit from this and other oyster reef restoration projects through the improvements a better reef system would provide both commercial and recreational fishing interests.

"These are not harvest reefs in terms of being able to go there and extract the oysters that grow there. These are considered sanctuaries but it will be legal to do hook and line fishing for public use of the reefs in terms of a recreational resource. From a commercial standpoint these reefs become sort of the breeding grounds for what can occur around them. As the oysters establish themselves they'll be putting more baby oysters into the water column and helping to repopulate the naturally occurring sites in the sound, so the more oysters you have the more oysters you'll grow."

The grant will also pay commercial fisherman to place 40,000 bushels of oyster shells in various locations along the coast to give the oyster spat more place to settle. The grant allows two years to complete the project though Miller thinks they can have it done in 15 months. The next step from there will be doing what they can to keep the momentum going on oyster restoration projects.

"There was a huge amount of mobilization of equipment to get where we are today and it would be a real shame to see that all that equipment dispersed and not take advantage of the capacity we have now to do this work going forward, but the first goal is to get this project done and demonstrated success and then we think there could easily be additional resources to carry it on because it is a proven concept and its not only going to prove very valuable for our coastal environment its going to be a great economic stimulus for the coast as well."

Todd Miller is the executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation. The first loads of limestone were moved into the Pamlico Sound last week. I'm George Olsen.