by Pat Garber
Ocracoke Island is surrounded by historic, shallow-water oyster beds, which have provided the island with protection from wave action in storms and delicious seafood for islanders and visitors. They filter and clean the water as they feed, and provide important habitat for many marine species. Common oysters, a species of marine mollusk known to scientists as Crassostrea virginica, are free-floating in their larval stage, but once they attach to a bottom they develop into spat and stay put. They often attach to one another forming huge congregates known as oyster reefs. In recent years, however, the reefs have suffered a dramatic decline, reducing them to a fraction of their former territory. This decline has been occurring across the whole of eastern North Carolina, but Ocracoke’s losses in the last few years have been especially alarming. “The oysters thrive for a short while” says James Barrie Gaskill, a fisherman and a board member with the North Carolina Coastal Federation, “but they are dead before their fourth year.” As a result, there has been a collaborative effort by state officials, environmental groups, and local fishermen to understand and reverse the losses, with several exciting projects in the works.
Last January North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries biologist Clay Caroon met with fishermen from the Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association to discuss ways to work together in creating oyster reefs located in productive and workable areas near Ocracoke. NCDMF has ten long-term oyster sanctuaries in Pamlico Sound, where no harvesting is allowed. They created the reefs by using barges to lay down cultch (oyster shells or marl), which attract oyster larvae to attach and then develop as oysters. According to Caroon, the sanctuaries that are in high salinity areas like Ocracoke do well for the first three or four years. Then they begin to fail, and the oysters die. It is believed that predation by crabs, boring sponges, oyster drills, and fish, particularly sheepshead, which thrive in highly saline waters, are mainly responsible. This is believed to be the cause of the recent failure of their sanctuary near the Le- High shipwreck. The Division also seeds oysters for public use, including near Ocracoke. These cultch sites can be harvested in 18 to 24 months. “This program,” said Caroon, “is funded specifically for public harvest. The ecosystem enhancement is an added benefit.” To make it successful, “we rely on fishermen and the public.”
The approach discussed in January was a plan to seed the cultch in many small areas of sand, and to scatter the cultch material very thinly, in hopes of reducing infestation by boring sponges and oyster drills. With multiple sites the watermen can then have more places to work. The sites they were looking for were sandy bottoms with grass growing around them. Using a shallow-draft barge the sites could be planted, harvested, and re-planted. During the spring and summer the sites were identified and planted with oyster shells, with hopes that by next summer there will be young oysters growing there.
Another project, conducted by the NC Land Trust and North Carolina Coastal Federation (NCCR), involved setting out approximately 5,000 bags of oyster shells near the shoreline at Springer’s Point. The goal was to reduce erosion. It was completed in July. Also funded by a NCCF grant, a third project was to set bags of shells in the waters near Beacon Island, which has been eroding at an alarming rate. The island, owned by the Audubon Society, is a vital nesting site for pelicans and other birds, as well as an important historic site.
Ocracoke waterman Gene Ballance, who has been mapping old oyster beds in Pamlico Sound for ten years has, with the help of James Barrie Gaskill, completed this effort, and is now setting out loose oyster shells in the waters offshore of Beacon Island, in what they call patch reefs. There are nine reefs, 20’X100’ in size and composed of 7,200 bushels of shell, which are trucked in and then transported to the sites by barge. The oyster reefs should reduce wave action which causes erosion and will be open for harvest to watermen in about three years.
Ocracoke watermen and their affiliates are hopeful that their efforts will succeed, and that Ocracoke’s historic shallow-water oyster beds will once again provide winter-time jobs for local fishermen, as well as erosion control, cleaner water, and more a productive