Oyster Life Cycle Informs Restoration Strategies

Building new oyster reefs is one of the key strategies used to revive North Carolina’s oyster population.

Native or wild oysters produce free floating oyster larvae. These baby oysters require a hard surface to attach to and grow upon within two weeks or they will not survive. Because of this, many restoration efforts concentrate on providing a suitable hard surface for the larvae. The oyster life cycle provides a glimpse into how oysters grow and informs how restoration efforts can be successful. Restoration efforts have been underway since the 1990s but more work is still needed.


Artistic rendering of the oyster life cycle ©Local as it Gets for the NC Coastal Federation. Most oyster restoration efforts focus on providing substrate for oyster larvae to “set” on, or by encouraging more oyster larvae in the first place.


Different Ways to Build Reefs

There are several techniques that can be used to build oyster reefs. These include methods specifically for the habitat and water quality benefits of oysters to be realized. And methods that are used to support wild harvest. Many of these projects are carried out in collaboration with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and other partners.

Cultch Planting


Oyster Shells


Oyster Aquaculture


Patch Reef

Patch Reef

The new habitat created from these restoration projects provides homes for a multitude of commercially and recreationally important species including blue crabs, shrimp and finfish. Building the reefs relies on the support of marine contractors, scientists, volunteers and others in ways that create jobs for the coastal economy and engages them in active restoration efforts.


Science Helps to Guide Reef Restoration

Building new reefs is carried out in North Carolina’s estuarine waters that support oyster populations. There are many important factors to consider in restoring reefs include:


  1. Are environmental factors suitable to support restoration?
  2.  Have cultural and logistical concerns been factored into the project design?
  3. Is the water quality safe for oysters to be harvested from here when they are full grown? Especially important for restoring areas that will be open to harvest
  4. What material and reef “architecture” will be best for my restoration goals?
  5. How might my restoration activity impact other habitats or water uses?


These considerations and more are factored into the models used for siting reefs. Researchers at NC State University, University of North Carolina Wilmington have partnered with the Division of Marine Fisheries to create these models. The models help oyster restoration practitioners focus their efforts in identifying restoration projects. Additional field work is performed to confirm site conditions are suitable for oyster restoration.