Oyster Habitat

A created oyster bed at the federation's preserve along Hoop Pole Creek in Carteret County.  

Food, Filter and Fish Habitat—what’s not to love? 

We love oysters and oyster reefs; let us count the ways.

Microscopic oyster larvae, top, and spat. Photos courtesy of Skip Kemp.

Oysters and the reefs that they form provide many ecological, economic and social benefits. They:
  • Provide important habitat
  • Serve as a critical link in the estuarine food web
  • Help control erosion along shorelines
  • Filter water
  • Form an important commercial and recreational fishery.
  • Are a keystone species in the estuary, and their health reflects that of the overall coastal ecosystem.

These values are often referred to as the three “Fs”, for short: food, filter and fish habitat. Our native eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica) provide these vital functions free of charge.

Food – Oysters support a viable commercial and recreational fishery that is an important part of North Carolina’s cultural heritage and economy. Oyster reefs support the production of more crabs and finfish valued at over $62 million annually.

Filter – As filter feeders, oysters remove harmful pollutants, sediment and excess algae from the water. An adult is capable of filtering between 15-35 gallons of water a day. As oysters filter, they also provide an important link in the estuarine food web by transferring nutrients from the surface (plankton) to the bottom (benthos). Watch a time-lapse video of oysters filtering water.

Fish Habitat – Oyster reefs provide essential habitat for a diverse collection of aquatic animals, including many important commercial and recreational fish species. One healthy oyster reef can be home to more than an estimated 300 different adult and juvenile organisms including southern flounder, shrimp, clams and blue crabs.

The Once and Future Oyster Story 

In the late 1880s, oysters from North Carolina were being harvested at unprecedented rates and shipped by box car to San Francisco and New York. In 1886-1887, Lt. Francis Winslow mapped oyster reefs in the Pamlico Sound. These maps were detailed enough that Gene Ballance, an Ocracoke waterman and founding member of the Ocracoke Foundation.

According to available data, the harvest peak occurred in 1902 with 800,000 bushels of oysters --5.6 million pounds of oyster meat -- harvested from N.C. waters. Oysters were viewed as a delicacy, and by some, as an aphrodisiac and thus very popular. Since the harvest peak, North Carolina’s oyster harvests declined a low of 35,000 bushels in 1994. Harvest in 2013 was approximately 61,500 bushels. The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries considers oysters a species of concern.

How You Can Help

Oyster Rock

  • Join the federation and support oyster restoration efforts

  • Recycle your oyster shells and ask that your favorite restaurants do, too

  • Encourage your local government to take actions to prevent stormwater runoff, the biggest polluter of coastal waters

  • Volunteer on a community-based restoration project

Problems and threats facing oysters:

  • Habitat loss
  • Pollution
  • Diseases
  • Harvest pressure 

Restoring Oysters and Water Quality

Oyster habitat in North Carolina ranges from deep water reefs in the Pamlico Sound (sub-tidal) to low relief patch reefs in intertidal waters and reefs fringing salt marshes along our estuarine shorelines (inter-tidal). We are the only state that has both types of reefs on our coast. We are lucky that enough of our oyster population remains to produce larvae to repopulate reefs in most of our estuaries; North Carolina is in far less dire straits than the Chesapeake Bay, so there’s hope.

Recognizing the full range of benefits provided by oysters, the N.C Division of Marine Fisheries has worked since the 1950s to regulate the oyster harvest and enhance reef habitat. To create reefs, the division annually deposits tens of thousands of bushels of oyster shell, marine limestone, clam shell – called “cultch” -- in shellfish waters from the Shallotte River to the Pamlico Sound. The division enhances oyster habitat in harvest areas by spreading cultch, which is colonized by oyster larvae (called the uninspiring name ‘spat’) that attach to the cultch and grow to three-inch harvest size in 18-24 months.

The federation and the division have also been building reefs in permanent “no-take” oyster sanctuaries in the deep water of Pamlico Sound.

The N.C. Coastal Federation has helped to coordinate the Oyster Restoration & Protection Plan (summary) for North Carolina, which links the restoration and protection of the native oyster population with a comprehensive coastal restoration and protection strategy. We are working with scientists, fishermen, agency personnel, policymakers and educators to update the plan, which will be released in March 2015.

ARRA (aka ‘Stimulus’) Oyster Restoration project

One thing many people don’t realize is how much a coastal restoration project looks like a construction project. That’s because it IS a construction project, just one that builds environmental infrastructure instead of houses and roads.

In many cases, the same materials, construction equipment and contractors are used. Landscape-scale restoration has less to do with tree hugging and more to do with barges, dump trucks and earth moving.

One project that demonstrates clearly the economic benefits of oyster restoration is our large-scale project funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009. Our long-term partner, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was the granting agency.  The federation partnered with many agencies, universities, groups and private companies on the project, which was among a handful nationwide that were awarded, and the only one awarded in North Carolina.


The Project by the Numbers:

  • 78.66 acres of oyster reefs created
  • 141,200 labor hours, or 140 full-time equivalents
  • Barge operators, tug boat and ferry captains, mining employees, truckers, commercial fishermen, quarry owners, boat captains, state agency employees, scientists and us.
  • $5 million
  • 40,000 bushels of oyster shells
  • 54,500 tons of reef material