Rockin’ Oysters

Oyster-shell collection bins, such as this one at Wrightsville Beach in New Hanover County, are used where shells are collected in amounts too large for can-collection sites to handle.

The DMF’s shell exchange program increases oyster production, aids habitat and, most importantly, boosts fishing.

It would be a good program with just one of its results, but the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries Oyster Shell Recycling Program is a triple winner.

It provides habitat and refuges for oysters and fish, plus the oysters filter and cleanse water for a healthier environment. Making the program work is simple, too — just gather shells after the oysters have been removed and eaten, let them cure a while to remove contamination, then return the shells to coastal waters.

Doing this task also is easy enough that children have become involved.

Additionally, the Oyster Shell Recycling Program is a winner for oyster consumers. Besides creating new and better places for oysters and fish to grow, it actually turns trash, and what is typically considered problem trash at that, into treasure.

In addition to the established refuge areas, cultch areas also grow oysters for harvesting. The proposed cultch sites are reviewed at public hearings at different areas of the coast before being approved and initiated. Cultch projects are set in waters that will be open to public harvest.

Cultch sites are oyster shells several feet thick on the bottom, prepared so they won’t sink or wash away in currents and constructed to best aid in oyster growth and harvest.

Not only do they provide suitable bottom for growing healthy and tasty oysters, cultch sites and refuge sites provide excellent habitats for a wide variety of finfish that can be caught by sportfishermen.

North Carolina General Statute 130A-309.10(f) states no person shall knowingly dispose of oyster shells in solid waste landfills. So what is a person or group who hosts an oyster roast to do with the shells? Simply take them to one of the many eastern N.C. recycling-bin locations and dispose of them while helping to create cleaner water and fisheries habitats.

Is it really that simple? Absolutely.

An added bonus is a tax credit of $1 per bushel for oyster shells taken to the collection centers. An even bigger bonus is the increased habitat and production of oysters and fish.

The Oyster Shell Recycling program is a simple and inexpensive program that should yield big results. The first benefits should be to help N.C.’s oyster fishery.

The state’s oyster population has declined significantly during recent years, a reduction that could be as much as 90 percent from the early 1990s, according to DMF biologists. They cite habitat loss, pollution, diseases and harvest pressure as major concerns.

In 1902 the state’s documented oyster harvest was 1.8 million bushels, a record that still stands. That harvest dropped to 71,500 bushels by 2005. Currently oysters are listed as a “species of concern” by DMF.

Oysters are one of the most important species in N.C.’s estuaries and reflect the habitat’s general health and well-being. One mature oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water each day, so large healthy oyster populations translate into clean water, which is good for fish, marine animals, plants and humans.

A single oyster annually produces millions of eggs that are carried by currents and tides to adjacent areas. Oysters prefer to attach to hard surfaces, which is why so many cling to bulkheads and dock pilings.

Researchers have found oysters readily attach to other oyster shells and tend to grow well at those areas. By locating cultch bottoms and oyster sanctuary reefs at appropriate places, N.C.’s harvestable oyster population should increase substantially.

Cultch areas and oyster reefs also provide habitat for other marine organisms that benefit the ecosystem, beginning with microscopic algae, then worms, mussels, barnacles, crabs, minnows and fish.

These organisms and minnows attract larger fish and develop an ecosystem and food chain complete with sportfish that attract fishermen. Even better, the process begins by making productive use of old oyster shells, once considered a disposal problem.

Nine recycled shell reefs have been built at sanctuaries already established at the middle and northern coasts of North Carolina. These places are well-marked and easily located.

These reefs are already proving successful in increasing the existing stock of native oysters and are attracting numerous species of fish. The pictures in the upper left corner of the reef map document the improvement in a single year.

All fishing gears that have potential to disturb the bottom are prohibited at oyster reef sanctuary areas, and they’re open only to hook-and-line fishing.

Oyster experts said sanctuaries could be keys to restoring N.C.’s formerly-abundant oyster stocks. Fishery biologists said N.C.’s oyster reefs already have attracted many species of finfish and predict mature oyster reefs will be significant fish habitats.

Healthy oyster populations should help state and local economies with oyster harvest and recreational fishing.

Sabrina Varnam, OSRP coordinator, urged citizens to become involved with shell recycling and is seeking volunteers to serve as area coordinators and to maintain collection sites.

DMF will provide special bins to hold shells at the collection sites. Area coordinators will collect shells at full bins.

Varnam also suggested adopting a restaurant and collecting shells from the restaurant and taking them to a disposal site.

“They’d be good projects for local fishing clubs,” she said.

Varnam may be contacted at 252-726-7021 or

If a church or civic organization is planning an oyster roast, such groups should call Varnam, who will make arrangements for collecting and transporting empty shells.

Finfish also benefit from the oyster shell recycling.

Randy Gregory, DMF sportfishing coordinator, said oyster-shell reefs are great nursery areas for juvenile fish and continue to provide excellent habitat for fish after they grow to adulthood.

Because of chosen locations at places with moderate currents, shell reefs not only concentrate oyster eggs, they provide shelter for species from minnows to large predators.

Fishermen already are catching gamefish at them. These species include sea bass, black drum, blennies, croaker, flounder, gag grouper, gray trout, oyster toadfish, pinfish, pigfish, red drum, sea mullet, sheepshead, spadefish, speckled trout, spot and striped bass.

Crabs, shrimp, other shellfishes and turtles also concentrate near oyster shell domes, making them a primary structure of a complex and bio-dependent food chain — with anglers at the top.

Capt. Ray Massengill of Down East Guide Service said he often enjoys good fishing at a couple of the sanctuary reefs at the lower Neuse River and Pamlico Sound.

He’s caught flounder, trout, drum and sheepshead at the same reef during the same day. Massengill said the reefs were constructed at prime locations and fishing would only get better as these places became more overgrown with oysters and other marine growths.

Massengill said fish at oyster sanctuaries usually respond to live baits and artificial lures. His typical live-bait rig consists of a Carolina rig, using a light egg sinker and Kahle hook or simply a Kahle hook on a 15- to 18-inch fluorocarbon leader, with just a split shot to help it sink. He prefers the oblong bend of the Kahle hook, which many fishermen refer to as a “flounder hook” for presenting live baits.

“The oyster reefs aren’t particularly deep or in areas of high current, so only a minimum of weight is needed to get a bait to sink to a productive level,” Massengill said. “They are usually in about 10 to 12 feet of water and the mounds are about 6-feet tall. The mounds are initially piles of ballast rock, and they quickly get covered by oysters.

“You’re going to lose some rigs anyway, but if you use too much weight, you’ll lose a lot. We catch mainly speckled trout and flounder, but we do see several other species occasionally.“

For artificial lures, Massengill uses a variety of soft-plastics and shrimp shapes with light jigheads. Oyster-sanctuary reefs also are good places to rig live baits and soft artificials under popping and rattling corks. An advantage of using rattling corks is they don’t hang on structures very often.

This past summer the N.C. General Assembly passed a law prohibiting state agencies from using oyster shells as mulch or ground cover. That’s when DMF began requesting businesses that participate in DMF programs, such as the N.C. Saltwater Fishing Tournament, not use oyster shells for landscaping.

In September, EJW Outdoors of Morehead City became the first private business to comply with the policy by allowing the removal of oyster shells used in landscaping in front of its building. The shells were replaced with decorative rock purchased by DMF, and the oyster shells were transported to the Oyster Shell Recycling Program.

Approximately 1,200 bushels of shells were received from this project and will be used to set oyster larvae at the DMF’s South River Oyster Hatchery.

Shells are placed in holding tanks and the larvae are introduced into the water. After several weeks the number of larvae attached to the shells is sufficient enough to transplant shells at one of the oyster sanctuaries.

Shells from EJW Outdoors are bound for oyster-reef building projects at the Neuse River, Bluff Point or Middle Bay oyster sanctuaries.

“EJW Outdoors is an important partner for the division and we are excited to work with them to promote this new initiative,” said DMF director Louis Daniel. “I greatly appreciate their support.”

“Anything EJW Outdoors can do to improve the fisheries, we’re all for it,” said EJW Outdoors owner David Willis.

Willis also said helping the fisheries was important to his business and should be to North Carolinians. Exchanging oyster shells for rocks was too simple not to do once he was made aware of how much it could help fishing and oysters.

After hearing about EJW Outdoors’ oyster-shell-for-rocks exchange, Dr. David Freshwater, who owns the Exchange at Mansfield, a shopping center next to EJW Outdoors, agreed to use matching decorative rock instead of oyster shells for landscaping.

At the N.C. coast, the future of shellfish and finfish always have been intertwined. Today, the DMF’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program is making the future brighter for oyster gatherers and anglers.

Coastal residents know the only thing better than roasting fresh oysters is complementing them with hot trout and flounder fillets just off the stove or grill.

N.C.’s oyster reclamation program means more anglers and their families and friends now have a chance to have more of these excellent dinners.

About Jerry Dilsaver 1169 Articles
Jerry Dilsaver of Oak Island, N.C., a full-time freelance writer, is a columnist for Carolina Sportsman. He is a former SKA National Champion and USAA Angler of the Year.

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