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Spat-On-Shell Project to Restore Wild Oysters

North Carolina Sea Grant, the NC Farm Bureau, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and industry collaborators have joined forces to produce and deploy “spat-on-shell.” The project launched on Jarrett Bay. Photo: John Lambeth/NC Sea Grant

Submitted by North Carolina Sea Grant

North Carolina Sea Grant, the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries and industry collaborators have joined forces on a new project to produce and deploy spat-on-shell to restore wild oyster populations for future harvest.

The project team has had two deployments in Carteret County this summer. Jarrett Bay off Core Sound was the initial spat-on-shell deployment site, followed by a site in North River. A deployment also is scheduled for the Newport River in spring of 2021.

“Recent storms like Hurricane Florence have impacted wild oyster populations,” said Frank López, extension director for North Carolina Sea Grant. “Spat-on-shell culturing allows oysters to be started as larvae in a nursery setting. As the larvae permanently attach to oyster shell in climate-controlled tanks, they are known as ‘spat.’ The spat-on-shell then can be deployed in sounds. The spat grow into adult oysters in this natural setting, and can form dense oyster beds over time.”

López credited Debbie Hamrick, director of specialty crops for the state Farm Bureau Federation and an advisory board member for Sea Grant, with helping to initiate the collaborative demonstration project.

“Oysters are an important fishery for North Carolina’s working watermen. During winter months, wild-harvested oysters provide needed income to support coastal fishing families, while providing tasty, healthy local food to seafood markets,” Hamrick said. “Helping commercial fishermen recover from Hurricane Florence through boosting North Carolina’s oyster fishery is a great use of some of our hurricane relief funding.”

López noted that support from the North Carolina Commercial Fishing Resource Fund was invaluable. Dispersion of the fund’s monies falls under the Marine Fisheries Commission’s Commercial Resource Fund Committee and the Funding Committee for the N.C. Commercial Fishing Resource Fund. The fund matched another grant from the N.C. Farm Bureau.

Susan Hill, owner of Down East Mariculture in Williston, is serving as the commercial nursery partner.

“Susan is investing in the coastal economy by repurposing ‘Elmer’s Old Clamhouse’ in Williston as a commercial shellfish nursery,” Hamrick said.

“It’s not every day that a native daughter returns home to give back to the community in a way that builds the economy for the future. She’s dedicated hours and days to ensure that the oysters we place in North Carolina’s waters are healthy, acclimatized, and have multiple spat attached. Her focus on the art and science of shellfish production and her dedication to assisting North Carolina’s commercial fishing community is unparalleled,” Hamrick added.

The project will bring environmental benefits, too. North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries representatives and commercial fishermen are collaborating to identify suitable sites, López explained.

“Not only do oysters provide economic benefits as an important fishery, they also provide many ecosystem services such as water filtration, shoreline stabilization, and habitat for different fish and other marine life,” said Jacob Boyd, habitat and enhancement section chief for the division.

“The division approaches shellfish rehabilitation by building strategically placed oyster sanctuaries, which are protected from harvest, and also constructing these open-access ‘cultch planting’ areas to function more like natural reefs,” Boyd explained. “Our complementary oyster reef-building efforts combine to create important habitat in our estuaries.”

The value of the project also includes the strong collaborations to complete each deployment.

“It’s been great to see the fishing industry, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, N.C. Farm Bureau, and N.C. Sea Grant working together on a project that has the potential to produce real economic and ecological benefits to eastern North Carolina,” said Glenn Skinner, executive director of the N.C. Fisheries Association. “I’m proud to say the fishermen have really stepped up to make this project a reality. Without their hard work, none of this would be possible.”

In addition to the project participants, community volunteers have been helping Hill in the oyster nursery in Carteret County’s Down East region.