House Hunting for Oysters

Feb 12, 2019 | North Carolina, North Carolina

Scientists Brandon Puckett of the North Carolina Reserve (left) and Ray Mroch from National Marine Fisheries collecting field data used to develop a new modeling tool for siting oyster restoration projects. Photo courtesy North Carolina Reserve.

Any homeowner can tell you that finding a home in today’s markets can be a long, bumpy road. Turns out it’s just as tough for oysters or the restoration teams working to bring these threatened shellfish back to coastal waters. Their jobs just got a little easier, however, thanks to a new online tool designed to identify the best sites for oyster reef restoration. Developed by our North Carolina Reserve and a team of local scientists and stakeholders, the model is accessible online to oyster restoration teams across the country.

Oysters provide many valuable services—they filter water, reduce erosion, provide fishery habitat, and support an aquaculture industry valued at nearly $200 million annually. Unfortunately, in many places overfishing, disease, and other challenges have reduced local oyster populations to 10 to 15 percent of historic numbers. While restoration efforts often focus on the sites of oyster reefs that have been lost or reduced, these may no longer be appropriate due to changing conditions.


A restored oyster reef. Healthy oysters support healthy estuaries, yet in many systems, oyster populations have been reduced to a fraction of their historic numbers. Photo courtesy of North Carolina’s Division of Marine Fisheries.

The new oyster habitat model takes a comprehensive approach to help restoration teams identify locations that might be feasible today. It generates an interactive map that visualizes optimal oyster habitat based on 17 different parameters, including oyster larval dispersion. The research team recently shared their results through a paper in Frontiers in Marine Science.

“For sanctuaries, this siting tool is our first step in planning any major project, and has been formally incorporated into our protocol for new site selection,” says Jason Peters, Enhancement Program Supervisor for North Carolina’s Division of Marine Fisheries.  “The beauty is that it’s customizable and the resulting map clearly emphasizes focal areas for reef enhancement. It’s an easy-to-read, one stop shop for information. We use it as a springboard for site investigations and ultimately management decisions.” 

The model is already being used to select oyster restoration sites in North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound.

“As the second largest estuary in the United States, Pamlico Sound is quite vast and identifying areas for restoration can be rather daunting.” said Erin Fleckenstein, coastal scientist with the North Carolina Coastal Federation. “This tool has been particularly helpful in selecting areas for consideration and communicating the reasons why they are priority locations.”

Machinery deploys artificial reef material for a restoration effort at a site selected in part using the new oyster habitat model. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Coastal Federation.

ReservesNorth Carolina, North CarolinaHouse Hunting for Oysters