Researchers studying restored oyster reefs along the coast

Published: Sep. 9, 2020 at 8:50 PM EDT
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CARTERET COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) - Oysters and their habitats are vital to coastal communities, like the ones here in eastern North Carolina, and researchers are studying how to protect the reefs and create a more abundant future for them.

Researchers wade through the back sound near Beaufort, collecting data on one of the coast’s most precious resources.

Zofia Knorek/UNC Institute of Marine Sciences PhD Student says, “Oysters are really important because they protect our shorelines, they filter our waters, our coastal waters.”

They also provide habitats for many of the fish consumed both recreationally and commercially in the state.

But in recent decades, those habitats have come under threat.

Researchers say we’ve lost 85% of oysters locally, and up to 99% in some areas of eastern North America, making them functionally extinct.

That’s why Knorek says this oyster census is so crucial. “We’re going back to all of these reefs built 4, 9, 20 and 23 years ago to see if, first of all, are they still there or not.”

For those that have survived researchers will record both their horizontal and vertical footprint using a real-time kinematic GPS device.

Emory Wellman/ECU Grad Student says, “This lets me see from a birdseye view both how a shoreline is retreating or advancing, but also really important vertical elevation data.”

Wellman says they’re also interested in the population of the oysters, how big they are and how many there are."

Among the biggest threats to these oyster reefs are rising sea levels, and major weather events like hurricanes.

The researchers say oysters can actually outpace sea-level rise, and can dissipate that wave energy during big storm events.

Tracking data for the ones that have failed is equally critical as it allows them to find out why that reef did not survive, which can help reef placement in the future.

They also say creating an environment conducive to reproduction and growth creates a better future.

The UNC Institute of Marine Sciences collaborated with ECU on this particular census where they ultimately studied 90 oyster reefs built over more than the past two decades.

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