Oyster regeneration programmes signal new hope

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
29 August 2007, at 1:00am

US - North Carolina and Virginia are boosting efforts to rejuvenate their oyster production. Two initiatives have been introduced to increase populations and revitalise the ailing shellfish sector.

North Carolina's historic oyster populations are being restored by raising billions of oysters in state-constructed shellfish hatcheries.

But, to get a head start before the first hatcheries are built, North Carolina Aquariums have enlisted the help of James Morris Sr., of Millpoint Aquaculture (pictured).

Morris has already produced the first millions of baby oysters for the state’s restoration programme, at his commercial facility. He has raised more than 38 million native oysters for the Aquariums’ Oyster Hatchery Programme (OHP). They will be "set" onto recycled oyster shells in onshore tanks by programme partners NC Division of Marine Fisheries, North Carolina Coastal Federation and J&B Aquafoods.

After several weeks in the tanks, the young oysters will then be placed at restoration sites in Pamlico Sound and New River.

“We are ecstatic with the amount and quality of the larvae we’ve received from Jimmy,” said Mike Remige, OHP coordinator. “This proves that we can use hatchery-raised oysters for restoration. But just as important, we are excited to be engaging private industry in our cooperative efforts.”

The OHP was established by legislative initiative in 2005 in response to declining oyster harvests, and it is spearheaded by the North Carolina Aquariums. The native Eastern oyster is a valuable natural resource that filters our waters and provides food and vital fish habitat.

In just two years, the program and its partners have seen a five-fold increase in the number of live oysters deployed in North Carolina waters. The target is to reach of 5 billion.

“So far we’ve been able to involve state agencies, the university system, non-profit organisations, stakeholders and a commercial enterprise in planning and implementing hatchery-based restoration,” said Remige. “The next step is to increase the number of hatchery-raised oysters and monitor their growth and survival in the wild.”

The Aquariums and their OHP partners have proposed the construction of three state-supported facilities for production, research and education needs. They will be located at Morris Landing, in Onslow County, on the grounds of the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island with a smaller research facility set up at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Marine Science.
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Chesapeake Bay endorsed
In Virginia State, officials have endorsed a plan to restore native oysters in Chesapeake Bay. It involves doubling the investment into the struggling program.

However, critics in the region's seafood industry say that the plan rarely differs from previous initiatives that have done little to reverse population declines. Diseases, lost habitat, poor water quality and over harvesting have been blamed for almost wiping out the Bay's signatures species during the past decade .

"I do not understand why we have implement the same management plan over and over," said Robert Johnson, who owns Johnson and Sons Seafood in Suffolk. He was speaking during a meeting of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, recently.

Mr Johnson is a member of a state-appointed Blue Ribbon Oyster Panel that has spent the past year studying restoration efforts and recommending new strategies. The panel's conclusions were debated last Tuesday. He also took part in another high-profile oyster review, in 1991, and said little has changed since then.

"There's just fewer names of industry representatives because they've all gone out of business; for lack of oysters to sell," said Mr Johnson.

State commission members said that they had to keep trying different methods to revitalise Virginia's devastated oyster industry. The new plans have now been approved and will get underway shortly.