New state program to benefit oyster populations & growers

Workers sort through caught oysters
Workers sort through caught oysters(North Carolina Coastal Federation)
Published: Jul. 26, 2022 at 4:27 PM EDT
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CARTERET COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) - A new effort is underway in the state to help restore wild oyster populations.

The program, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, works by partnering with oyster growers.

As the North Carolina Coastal Federation shares, this program is being considered a win-win.

The oyster industry in North Carolina has grown dramatically in recent years, and a new program will look to not only help bolster future wild oyster numbers, but also benefit oyster growers in the state.

“The Natural Resources Conservation Service is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and they receive funding to help producers implement conservation practices on their lands,” Erin Fleckenstein of the Coastal Federation says.

Oyster growers can apply for this cost-share funding to help expand their growing capacity and to help restore the wild oyster habitat.

“The current program with NRCS is to put down loose oyster shell on the bottom of their lease and then to allow natural oysters to recruit to that shell,” Fleckenstein says. “The oysters are then allowed to grow up and after a year, the oyster farmer can either harvest those oysters or can allow them to continue growing.”

The program only recently began in North Carolina and now has one participant.

“I haven’t met anyone in North Carolina that’s not excited about this, I think it’s been a long time coming,” Petra Volinski, NRCS supervisory soil conservationist says. “There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes work by our biologists and program staff. I’m ecstatic; I can’t wait to get more people interested [and] get the word out.”

James Hargrove is the owner and operator of Middle Sound Mariculture and is now the first in the state to take part in the program.

“It’s great to be able to pioneer it, it is a learning curve, just trying to figure out what needs to be signed off on,” Hargrove says.

It isn’t just about being the first in the state to take advantage of the cost-share program for Hargrove, but it is also an opportunity for him to expand his oyster-growing operation.

“...will allow me to try a different grow-out method that’s less intense, that would be geared more toward the traditional roast market of oysters,” Hargrove says. “It makes total sense to try to construct my own reefs that would be used to harvest from.”

While Hargrove is the first, program coordinators hope he certainly won’t be the last.

“Right now, we’re trying to spread the word and let people know that this program exists and that there is an opportunity for them to take part in restoring this important habitat, and that there are cost-share funds available to help offset the expense of doing this,” Fleckenstein says.

The Coastal Federation is also working closely with the NRCS to help connect oyster growers to this program.

Both groups say they hope to expand what the cost-share program can be used for in the oyster-growing industry once more people begin to utilize the current funding.

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