North Carolina’s estuaries were teeming with oysters 150 years ago. In the time since, a combination of factors has caused oyster populations to decline.
Development, urbanization, point and nonpoint source pollution, intensive farming, harvest pressure, and increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as freezing temperatures, hurricanes, heavy rains and prolonged winds have all contributed to the loss, said state marine ecologist Jason Peters.
As supervisor of North Carolina’s cultch planting program, Peters has been heading up an effort by the Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Marine Fisheries to rebuild the oyster population.
“Cultch planting is an oyster restoration technique employed by many states along the East and Gulf coasts to return hard bottom habitat to our estuaries. This hard-bottom habitat, usually in the form of oyster shell of fossilized limestone marl, is placed in areas with suitable conditions for recruitment, growth and survival of oysters,” said Peters, who also supervises the state’s artificial reefs and oyster sanctuaries program. “The objective of this program is to mitigate habitat loss from harvest or natural events by establishing new, successful oyster reefs.”
Erin Fleckenstein is coastal scientist with the Wanchese office of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, which publishes Coastal Review. She explained that cultch planting activities are part of a comprehensive strategy to build back oyster resources and support a wild harvest fishery in the state.
Fleckenstein heads up the statewide Oyster Restoration and Protection Plan for North Carolina: A Blueprint for Action. The federation was set to announce Tuesday the fourth edition of the blueprint, which provides direction and guidance for restoration, management and economic development strategies to benefit to the environment and economy for the next five years.