Oyster Habitat

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

Our Oyster Habitat Work:

Eastern Oyster: A Keystone Species


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

In the late 1880s oysters from North Carolina were being harvested at unprecedented rates and shipped by the box car to San Francisco and New York. 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. While still regarded as a tasty treat to many, we now know they are also one of the most important inhabitants of our estuaries.  

Oysters and the reefs that they form provide many ecosystem benefits. They provide important habitat, are a critical link in the estuarine food chain, help to control erosion along shorelines, filter water and they are an important fishery. These values are often referred to as the three “F's:” 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. 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 are also are providing an important link in the estuarine food chain 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.

Oysters in Trouble

As a keystone species in the estuary, the health of the oyster reflects the health of the coastal ecosystem. Since the harvest peak in the early 1900s, North Carolina’s oyster harvests declined from an unsustainable high of 800,000 bushels to a low of 35,000 bushels in 1994. North Carolina is working to determine the status of oysters stocks, but it has listed oysters as a species of concern. The current estimate is that only 50 percent of the population remains from the late 1800s, due to habitat loss, pollution, diseases, and harvest pressure. This decline and continued stress on the oyster is repeated throughout the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The loss of our native eastern oyster mirrors the deterioration of water quality and decline of fisheries in these coastal systems. Linking oyster restoration with efforts to protect and restore water quality will result in increased oyster habitat and healthier coastal environments.

A barge sprays off oysters shells to build a reef in Dicks Bay (Photo courtesy of Ken Blevins, Wilmington Star-News). 


Restoring Oysters and Water Quality  

A number of efforts including the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries Oyster Fishery Management Plan, Blue Ribbon Council, Coastal Habitat Protection Plans, the N.C. Division of Division of Water Quality Basinwide and Watershed Plans and research at various universities are underway to restore oyster habitat and protect water quality.

Recognizing the recommendations from these plans and that focused action was needed to put them in place the federation worked with state agencies, researchers, educators, shellfish harvesters and growers to develop and implement the the Oyster Restoration & Protection Plan for North Carolina. The plan links the restoration and protection of the native oyster population with a comprehensive coastal restoration and protection strategy. It takes priority recommendations from the stakeholders and existing plans and puts them into action through partnerships, securing additional funding and with support from the N.C. General Assembly. The planning effort was funded by the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

Significant progress is being made through the efforts of the plan’s participants, with more reefs being built and sanctuaries developed, an increasing number of water quality restoration initiatives focused on shellfish waters, more money is being spent to map oyster habitat and to identify and remove water pollution hot-spots, a shellfish research hatchery has been established and the public is helping restore oyster by recycling shells. In addition the oyster fishery is getting stronger with increasing harvests up to 197,000 bushels of oysters harvested in 2010 with a value of over $5 million.

The federation uses three strategies to restore our state’s oyster population: educate and involve the public, protect the water and restore habitat.

Restoring Oysters and Water Quality

Volunteers monitor the size of the oysters on the new Dicks Bay reef.

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. Significant progress is being made through the efforts of the plan’s participants, which include scientists, fishermen, policymakers and educators.

An oyster hatchery is being developed, more oyster sanctuaries are being built, more money is being spent to map oyster habitat and to identify and remove water pollution hot-spots and the public is helping restore oyster by recycling shells.

Creating Oyster Habitat

Oyster habitat in North Carolina ranges from deep water reefs in the Pamlico Sound to low relief patch reefs in intertidal waters and reefs fringing salt marshes along our estuarine shorelines. We are lucky that enough of our oyster population remains to produce larvae to repopulate reefs in most of our estuaries. Using this remaining population and recognizing the full suite of benefits provided by oysters, the N.C Division of Marine Fisheries has been working since the 1950’s to regulate the 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 that attach to the cultch and grow to 3-inch harvest size in 18-24 months. The division also has been building reefs in permanent “no-take” oyster sanctuaries in the deep water of Pamlico Sound.

In recent years, a number of groups, including the federation have partnered with the division to expand oyster restoration efforts in North Carolina. The federation has been working since 1998 with the division and a variety of partners to restore, enhance and protect almost 85 acres of oyster reef habitat at sites all along the coast. The projects have ranged from 48 acres of deep water reefs constructed in division oyster sanctuaries to small patch reefs in Myrtlegrove Sound and fringing reefs around Jones Island in the White Oak River

Economic Stimulus Project

The federation partnered with the division on a project that was among a handful nationwide that was awarded a federal economic recovery grant through NOAA to improve marine habitat. The funding was used to provide jobs to build almost 60 acres of oyster reefs along the N.C. coast.

Building an Oyster Reef

The federation works with researchers, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and shellfish harvesters to select a project site and design the reef.

  • Watch a video of an volunteers building an oyster reef in the White Oak River

Monitoring Projects

All of the federation oyster reef habitat restoration projects are monitored using NOAA’s Habitat Restoration Monitoring protocols. The monitoring is coordinated by federation staff often with guidance from researchers and agencies and implemented by staff and volunteers.

How to Get Involved

There are many exciting opportunities from shell recycling, oyster monitoring and shell bagging to get involved in oyster restoration projects. Check out our Events Calendar to find activities in your area.