Aquaculture on the rise in coastal North Carolina

Published: Oct. 22, 2015 at 4:23 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 26, 2015 at 8:09 PM EDT
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Nearly all of southeastern North Carolina's waters are now open for shellfish harvesting after heavy rains and floods left most areas polluted earlier this month.

Not only are oysters one of the state's most popular shellfish to eat, but the shells themselves can be used as hardworking landscape material, in the form of driveways and patios.

Oyster shells make up many of the paths at Colonial Williamsburg to to get around. But starting October 1, a new law went into effect prohibiting contractors from using the shells in commercial landscaping.

The new law is an effort to increase the state's oyster shell recycling program, where the shells are used to rebuilt oyster reefs.

"Oysters happen to be one of the few species that when we harvest it, we take the habitat right along with it, so we are trying to put that back into place," said UNC-Wilmington's Troy Alphin. "Larvae oysters depend on the adult oyster shell for settlement, and they have a very narrow window for settlement in their life span, only a couple of weeks. So if the shells are not in the water, they are not available for the larvae to settle on, these larvae will die. What we are trying to do is make sure the shells are back in the water as soon as we can they will be available for the next generation of oysters."

At a summit earlier this year, North Carolina ecologists, scientists and politicians announced new efforts to make North Carolina the "Napa Valley of Oysters."  One way that can be accomplished is by developing new oyster sanctuaries, something that Virginia and other states have already done.

A healthy oyster population is linked to the overall health of coastal fisheries.

"They provide a series of eco-system services, They filter the water. They buffer against wave action and storm surges. They provide a lot of habitat for small juveniles of recreational and commercially important fish and shrimp. They do a lot of work for us, above and beyond looking good on a plate," Alphin explained.

But the overall number of oysters being harvested in North Carolina, like other seafood, is down. That is why there are several projects underway that could boost their population, and UNC Wilmington is taking the lead in many of them.

With funding help from SeaGrant, the UNCW Oyster Hatchery is developing special lines of seed oysters that should be used for farmers to use in specific areas. The seed oysters are placed in floating cages in locations individuals can lease from the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Division, which handles the commercial aspect of the oyster harvest.

Alphin does a lot of work with the potential oyster grower in helping them narrow their search for a site to put in an aquaculture operation and by assisting in the navigation thru the rules and regulations.

"North Carolina is a public trust state, so the water, from the high tide line down, belongs to the public. But in order to grow oysters on an oyster farm, you have to get a lease and rights to manage that piece of property," Alphin said. "That is all handled thru the Division of Marine Fisheries thru their oyster leasing program, or bottom leasing program. Some people would need a bottom lease and other people would need a water column lease, where they would put out cages and shells, where they would put out specific strains of oysters and grow them up to a harvestable size."

North Carolina is hoping to emulate what states like Alabama has done where hundreds of these cages are filled with seeds.

"We have the space and we have the water quality in a lot of areas, so we could potentially grow this industry by leaps and bounds over the next decade," Alphin said.

In 2014, North Carolina's oyster income was just under $350,000.  But in Virginia, that figure exceeded $17 million, leading Tar Heel officials to quickly expand aquaculture operations in our coastal waters.

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