MANTEO — North Carolina will spend more than $1.6 million improving the habitats of oysters living in its waters.
The money will go toward further restoring oyster sanctuaries in the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds in hopes the species will rebound to levels not seen in decades.
“The General Assembly’s new budget takes big steps toward making coastal North Carolina the Napa Valley of oysters,” Todd Miller, founder and executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, said in a news release.
The state’s 2015 wild oyster harvest of 119,000 pounds is nearly 20,000 pounds less than in 2014 but still much higher than in the 1990s and 1980s when diseases decimated the population.
The total population was 800,000 pounds in 1889, when scientists first began measuring the catch. It fell to 200,000 pounds by 1960.
State biologists have labored to restore oyster numbers, setting a goal to establish 500 acres of new oyster sanctuaries – reefs made of shell, marl, concrete and other materials. Babies attach to the reef, called a “cultch,” and grow to their adult size of about 3 inches in 18 to 24 months. Once there, they never move again, even to eat or reproduce.
That life cycle makes reefs crucial. The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries deposits an average of 230,000 bushels of shell and marl each year into the Pamlico Sound and other suitable waterways.
The phrase “Napa Valley of oysters” originated with Rowan Jacobsen, author of “A Geography of Oysters,” who made the comparison during a summit on oysters held in Raleigh last year, said Erin Fleckenstein, a scientist with the North Carolina Coastal Federation.
The Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, which make up the second-largest estuary in the nation after the Chesapeake Bay, could become home to a robust oyster population and harvest, she said.
Oyster festivals abound in the state, and families center celebrations around roasts of the spoon-size meaty organism hiding within the craggy shell. Some open the shell and slurp them down raw. Some would rather roast them over coals and dip the meat in cocktail sauce. Others prefer them battered and fried with generous helpings of coleslaw and hush puppies.
Besides its savory reputation, oysters have value as a “keystone” species, Fleckenstein said.
Oyster reefs attract small fish which attract larger fish, creating prime fishing spots. And new research indicates oysters clean nitrogen from the water often caused by agricultural runoff. A healthy adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day, according to Marine Fisheries.
“They are pretty amazing,” Fleckenstein said.
The state also wants to build the oyster aquaculture industry as Virginia has done. North Carolina’s farmed oyster industry last year amounted to less than a half-million dollars. Virginia’s industry was valued at $17.1 million, according to a document produced by the North Carolina Coastal Federation.
North Carolina’s budget includes $1.03 million dollars to build oyster sanctuaries in Pamlico Sound, $300,000 to build harvest oyster reefs, $149,000 for two new positions at the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries focused on shellfish industry and $100,000 to clean up abandoned crab pots.
“This is a major step forward,” Fleckenstein said.
This article originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.