For coastal residents, oysters are a tasty, healthy treat from the sea. Oysters also are important in controlling erosion, attracting fish and other marine life, and improving water quality.
Antonio Rodriguez, an associate professor at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences, studies the geology of oyster reefs, and contributed his expertise to an article in a recent edition of Smithsonian magazine. Emily Matchar interviewed Rodriguez and other marine scientists for her recent article, “As Storms Get Bigger, Oyster Reefs Can Help Protect Shorelines.” Matchar looks at how different localities are using discarded oyster shells to create new reefs and replenish the number of thriving oyster beds.
In the article, Rodriguez says that over the last 100 years, oyster reefs worldwide have declined by some 80 percent. “We’ve had similar losses in North Carolina,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview. “For a long time, people would take oysters out of the bay, and oyster shells out of the bay, and use [them] for construction purposes,” he said. It was once customary to use oyster shells in driveways, Rodriguez said, but that practice has declined.
North Carolina’s Division of Marine Fisheries has several ongoing programs to replenish the beds and Rodriguez is optimistic about that process. “We’re really lucky here in North Carolina,” he said. When you find a substrate that oysters like, the oysters will form reefs very quickly, helping to create more oysters, he said.
The Division of Marine Fisheries maintains 13 oyster sanctuaries, places where the harvest of oysters is prohibited. These areas “encourage the growth of large, healthy oyster populations that can act as a brood stock for the rest of North Carolina's coastal waters,” according to the Division of Marine Fisheries website (http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mf/habitat/enhancement/oyster-sanctuaries).
North Carolina also has an oyster shell recycling program. Marine Fisheries has numerous sites where people can take oyster shells, which are used to attract baby oysters, which in turn can help create oyster reefs. (For a map of sites, visit http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mf/habitat/enhancement/oyster-shell-recycling.)
Rodriguez encourages people to take the shells left from that oyster roast to a recycling center. “We need to promote the habitat, and then the oysters will come,” he said.