CARTERET COUNTY — The normally quiet community of South River is about to get busier when construction starts on a new oyster reef in the nearby Neuse River. This spring, the North Carolina Coastal Federation and its partners will break ground on a 15-acre oyster restoration project, part of an ambitious goal to restore 50 million oysters in North Carolina waters by 2020.

Last month, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries received federal and state permits for the development of the Swan Island Oyster Sanctuary near South River. The federation signed a construction contract with Stevens Towing Company, Inc., which has a North Carolina office in Edenton, to build the reef this spring.

“This is a great example of how public-private partnerships can work together to restore oyster reefs in our coastal waterways,” said Erin Fleckenstein, coastal scientist for the federation and project manager for the restoration project. “Working with the state and federal governments we were able to secure funding which will hire local North Carolina barge operators, truck drivers and marine contractors to build these reefs.”

This restoration project is part of the recently launched 50 Million Oyster Initiative. These acres are the first step toward the 50 acres of oyster reef the federation and partners plan to construct in the next three years. Each acre supports approximately one million oysters, and those 50 million oysters will filter 2.5 billion gallons of water per day.

“The large-scale approach of the 50 Million Oyster Initiative will serve as a national model for shellfish restoration,” said Pat Montanio, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Habitat Conservation. “Projects like these support jobs and boost the local economy, while supporting the sustainability of the fish and wildlife that use these reefs for habitat.”

The sanctuary that Stevens Towing will construct will provide a haven for oysters to repopulate. It will be open to hook-and-line fishing, but not to harvest. Near the sanctuary site, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries will be building cultch planting sites with oyster shell, marl and other materials.

“Oyster sanctuaries and cultch planting sites are two different approaches used to enhance North Carolina’s oyster population. Oyster sanctuaries are no-take reserves which serve as larval sources to supply oyster larvae to cultch planting sites, natural oyster reefs and other oyster sanctuaries. Cultch planting sites are harvestable reefs which increase oyster numbers and harvest numbers,” said Garry Wright, habitat and enhancement section biologist supervisor at the division. “When paired together, oyster sanctuaries, cultch planting sites and natural reefs create an interconnected network of oyster reefs.”

Siting of the sanctuaries and cultch areas is guided by modeling efforts from North Carolina State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. These models are based on biological, logistical and historical data that indicate successful oyster restoration and help locate general areas for future restoration efforts.

The model results helped division resource managers identify potential sites for 2017 oyster sanctuary construction and cultch planting efforts. The division then performed field investigations to confirm the area was suitable for restoration. Based on results from field investigations, the division solicited public comment on the potential sites.

The division will be working with the federation and partners to identify locations for future restoration efforts. Those interested in getting involved should contact Erin Fleckenstein at or Garry Wright at

Funding sources for the project this year include more than $1 million in state appropriations and a $1.275 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Additional funding is provided by Grady White Boats, as well as through donor support.

More information on oyster restoration work is available at and