Oyster Restoration Program WTKF Radio Show 9/20/21: Jason Peters (NCDMF) Mike McHugh Host and Dr. Bogus
Dr. Bogus: We have coming back to us Jason Peters from Marine Fisheries. First Jason, give people an idea on your background.
Jason Peters: Sure, thanks Dr. Bogus. As you said I’m Jason Peters, really glad to be back here today, I think this is my second visit, hope to be invited back again. We’ll see how today goes. I work at the Division of Marine Fisheries, I work for their habitat enhancement section. My title is officially Enhancement Program Supervisor, so what that means for me is that I oversee all the reef enhancement work that we do.
Dr. Bogus: Which is a very busy part of the duties on Marine Fisheries.
Jason Peters: It really is, but I like to say it’s more of a feel-good side of Fisheries. We give something back and so I oversee the Artificial Reef Program, the cultch planting program, which is the program we will be talking about today, and then the Oyster Sanctuary Program.
Dr. Bogus: We’re going to talk about the Oyster Restoration, that’s part of the restoration of things but why don’t you give people a little basic biology of oysters, because it plays an important role in restoring these reefs it’s an important consideration.
Jason Peters: Absolutely, so I’m an ecologist by training which means I’ve studied how organisms interact with their environment. Oysters start out essentially as larvae. So oysters will spawn in the water column, males and females put their seeds in the water column, they will fertilize, the larvae will travel through the water for about 2-weeks then after that point they will develop to a point settle on “suitable” habitat, hard rock substrate or other oyster reefs and then they will live there for the rest of their lives.
Dr. Bogus: Which is how long?
Jason Peters: It depends on where they are but in North Carolina we see 3, 4-years maybe max.
Dr. Bogus: That’s the life cycle!
Jason Peters: Yes about 3 or 4-years.
Dr. Bogus: So how long has the restoration project been going on? I remember a few years ago when you were requesting people dropping off shells I know that’s been around for a while.
Jason Peters: Sure, quite a bit of time actually. So we’ve got two main programs at the Division, one is the cultch planting program; the other is the oyster sanctuary. The cultch planting really is where restoration started with the division and with the state and that’s been around in some form or fashion since about 1915. So we’re over a hundred years now doing restoration in the state.
Dr. Bogus: What is the health of our oysters here in North Carolina at this point? I know we’re trying to restore things but what is it now compared to the historical background of the oyster habitat and the economics?
Jason Peters: Sure absolutely, so in the 1800’s, really mid to late 1800’s I would say we were at the peak for our oyster populations and at that point the harvests didn’t increase substantially and we haven’t rebounded from that. So we’re about 10% or historical max from the 1800’s.
Dr. Bogus: And that’s been for quite some time, I went back and looked at Marine Fisheries website on the oyster harvests over the past 20 or 25-years, there are ups and downs obviously but there really hasn’t been a big change even from 20-years ago it didn’t seem.
Jason Peters: Right, there are quite a few pressures that we are seeing on oysters now that can affect their populations. Of course we’re seeing higher frequencies of hurricanes, which affect the salinity in the sounds more intensive agriculture and land development and all of those things, and harvest of course, all of those factors really can affect oysters and hence the need for restoration and restoration efforts to maintain populations at a harvestable level.
Dr. Bogus: In North Carolina geographically speaking what is the distribution…is it generally through the whole state north to south, what does that look like?
Jason Peters: Oysters of course they exist all the way from the Gulf Coast on up to Maine. We’ve got them throughout coastal North Carolina anywhere salinities are greater that about 12-parts per-thousand, maybe from the mouth of the Neuse eastward can support oysters. (Ocean salinity about 3.5-ppt)
Dr. Bogus: A big part of this program is collection and distributing the oyster shells on the reefs. Oyster shells and what other materials are good substrates for the larvae to affix to?
Jason Peters: Oyster shells are obviously the natural substrate, that’s what oysters settle on, so we know that that works, but they are not always available to us and of course they are quite expensive so we look to alternatives, the main that we use is actually a fossil type of shell, it’s fossil limestone and we get quite a bit of it, marine limestone marl, it is mined in New Bern. So it’s sourced in New Bern and we spread throughout the sound as our primary alternative.
Dr. Bogus: We know the size of the oyster shells, what is the size of stuff that you distribute, that’s probably a critical part too.
Jason Peters: I mentioned our two different programs cultch planting program is intended really to support a wild harvest and so we use smaller materials that can be picked up in tongs or dredges or things of that nature or hand harvested, so much smaller maybe 2-inches. Of course the method that we distribute them is via our fleet of 5-vessels with water monitors so we blast them off the side so that means that we need to have a little bit smaller material. In the sanctuary program we’re building much higher relief, these are big mountains for more of a long term insurance policy on our oyster population. And we’re building with much larger 12, 14-inch even larger pieces of limestone marl or concrete in some cases to build those because they are closed to harvest, people don’t need to go in there and excavate or anything like that.
Dr. Bogus: I saw a story in one of the publications recently and it was pretty impressive, there was a big boat which liked like tons of oyster shells, can you describe a typical day when you are dumping tons of oyster shells? (https://coastalreview.org/2021/04/efforts-on-to-rebuild-ncs-oyster-population/)
Jason Peters: I think in that article that image that you saw was an image for our oyster sanctuary program and we build about 10-acres a year. What you were seeing there was a barge…we partner up with North Carolina Coastal Federation, or we have for the last several years and we’ve got a contractor that come in and takes about 1,500-tons of that material in a single barge load to the reef site. In a given year we’ll do maybe 12 to 15-of those barge loads for a 10-acre site.
Dr. Bogus: That seems like a thankless job, it seems like you have to put a lot of stuff down to make an impact on the situation with the oysters. We’ve obviously taken up over the years a lot of the oyster shells out and now we’re trying to get it back where it belongs.
Jason Peters: So we’ve got a bin at Marine Fisheries, anybody that has oyster shells we certainly collect them, and they go a long way to helping our cultch planting program and restoring the oyster populations.
Mike McHugh: I can ask a question, Jason, you talk about the economic impact that oysters have on the economy as far as harvesting and people consume it, but speak from a point of the ecology and the environment. How much water does one oyster filter in a day.
Jason Peters: Great question! So there is a lot of controversy over that number it reports up to about 50-gallons a day, really incredible. We were talking on one of the breaks about scaling that up. So we sample on a per-meter squared one-meter-by-one-meter, and we can see 200, 300-oysters in the single meter, and then you talk about acres of that times 50-gallons. It’s a lot of water that we’re filtering and that means a lot economically, clean water better fisheries, that brings people here.
Dr. Bogus: The habitat that you are generating can be determined where it is since it’s published on the NCDMF (https://deq.nc.gov/about/divisions/marine-fisheries/habitat-information/habitat-enhancement).
Jason Peters: It sure is and I would like to point folks to the trusty Google, just to Google NCDMF, you can type “oyster sanctuary” or “cultch planting” or “oysters” and you’ll find our main page and on that page there is a link to an interactive map. You can see all of the habitat that we’ve got out there, cutch planting and oyster sanctuaries and artificial reefs for that matter.
Dr. Bogus: It’s really good for the artificial reefs as well. What are some of your recent accomplishments? I know you’ve done a lot of work around the Cedar Island area, near the bombing range and all.
Jason Peters: So that’s where our crowning achievement is. In the last year we finished up a 60-acre site at what we call Swan Island Oyster Sanctuary, again that was in partnership with the Coastal Federation…
Dr. Bogus: I’ve fished there!
Jason Peters: And really a great spot for old drum fishing, you mentioned that in your report earlier. All of those reefs hold big drum. So that was our big one and then of course we’ve started our next sanctuary site at Cedar Island and we built about 10-acres this past year.
Dr. Bogus: What does that look like going forward? Do you have stable funding to do this and what is your plan for the next 5 to 10-years?
Jason Peters: We plan to continue our partnership with the Coastal Federation, we’ve been able to leverage a 50/50, we pay half, they pay half. Every year it’s doubled the amount of habitat we’ve been able to build. We’ve been really fortunate; our funding comes from the General Assembly almost exclusively at least our portion in the Division and we’ve been really fortunate to have strong funding for the last previous 5-years and we’ve hopeful to continue that strong funding.
Dr. Bogus: These reefs, some of those are sanctuaries; does that mean that those are off limits as far as harvesting goes? But there are other areas that you can harvest where you are creating these reefs?
Jason Peters: Correct, so our oyster sanctuary program I mentioned before they are much more complex larger areas, but they are closed to harvest, we build them as sort of an insurance policy to provide those larvae we talked about to the rest of the system and then the cultch reefs are open harvest smaller materials so that they can be collected.
Dr. Bogus: And then as a fisherman I know those reefs are very productive. I was just fishing over the weekend at a place called Emerald Isle Woods and right off the end of the pier there is big oyster reef and when I was able to fish at the high tide I can fish right over the top of the reef looking for red drum. So what other fish tend to accumulate around the reefs?
Jason Peters: Of course we know that trout, spotted sea trout, but weakfish also love these sites. We see sheepshead quite frequently. Seasonally, maybe not so much of a fishery, but we do see groupers and sea bass using that habitat for refuge…juveniles, and then red drum and black drum.