Letter to the Editor – Oysters: Good for eating and good for the environment

Published 1:11 pm Monday, May 9, 2022

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To the Editor:

One well-known fact is that oysters are a highly sought-after cuisine up and down the eastern seaboard. The United States oyster industry generates around $214 million annually, North Carolina alone generated $30 million in 2021. What many people do not know is that oysters are a keystone species in the estuary, the health of oysters reflects the overall health of the estuary. Oyster habitats in coastal North Carolina range from deep water reefs in Pamlico Sound to the low patch reefs in the intertidal zone and reefs in the salt marshes along the estuary shorelines. North Carolina is the only state in the United States with both deep water and intertidal zone oyster reefs. However, there is a concern for the survival of the oyster fishery in North Carolina due to increased fishing pressures, increased stock decline due to diseases, poor water quality, and habitat loss.

In January of 2022, many people put in their lease requests for plots of land to grow shellfish in the waters off our coast. However, a number of the requests were denied and there was public opposition based on the premise that oyster aquaculture in the coastal water would ruin the picturesque views of coastal North Carolina. This is a common misconception because there is a lack of education on how oysters are grown, they are not grown above the water in the line of view of anyone. Instead, they are grown using either on-bottom or off-bottom culture. On-bottom culturing of oysters involves cultivating oysters in trays that are placed directly into the sediment, under the water out of view, until they reach market size, then the tray is removed from the ocean floor and the oysters are harvested off the tray. Off-bottom culturing is done by placing the oysters in mesh bags tied to metal tresses, and when they have matured, the bag is removed from the water and the oysters are harvested. In both these methods of oyster farming, it is very unlikely that the systems are easily viewable from outside the water. However, it is important to mention that the metal tresses that the mesh bags are attached to are possibly visible as they will stick out just above the water’s surface.

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The growing, harvesting, and selling of oysters is a growing, lucrative business in coastal North Carolina. According to Eric Edwards of NC State University’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, farmed oysters generated $14 million in state gross revenue and contributed to the employment of 271 people in 2019. With oyster farming becoming a growing industry, these numbers have only increased and will continue to increase so long as there is a demand for oysters. The expected numbers are that oyster aquaculture will generate $100 million in revenue for North Carolina, while also creating over 1,000 jobs by 2030.

However, oysters don’t only generate revenue through the selling of oysters, but they contribute to generating revenue in other marine species industries. In coastal North Carolina, the oyster reefs support the production of crabs and finfish, an industry valued at over $62 million annually. This is because oyster reefs provide a natural habitat for these species, protecting these species from predators and allowing for a greater percentage of survival, which can then be harvested and sold once it reaches market size.

Oysters are filter feeders, meaning they remove harmful pollutants, sediment, and excess algae from the water, with an adult oyster being capable of filtering 15-35 gallons of water a day. Their filtering characteristic is being increasingly needed as coastlines are at an increased [risk] of eutrophication, which is a process that happens when an increase of nutrient runoff from fertilizers and other chemicals enters the waterway, resulting in an increase of algae growth called an algal bloom. Oysters combat this phenomenon by filtering out the excess nutrients and pollution associated with runoff, as well as consuming the algae produced in association with the increase in nutrients. In addition to being natural water filters, they transfer necessary nutrients of plankton in estuaries from the water surface to the bottom where it can then be accessed by juvenile species. Another environmental benefit of oyster reefs is that they provide essential habitat and protection for a diverse number of aquatic species. Not only are species in these habitats used for commercial purposes, but also for recreational use. One healthy oyster reef can provide habitat and protection for over 300 different aquatic animals, including southern flounder, shrimps, clams, and blue crabs, all of which are caught for either commercial or recreational purposes. Oyster aquaculture takes away the pressure and the risk of overharvesting from wild oyster populations.

Oysters are also beneficial in the effort toward slowing down the harmful effects of climate change. Oyster aquaculture produces only 11 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per ton of oysters produced, a value that is drastically smaller than the greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing edible beef, 340 tons per ton of beef produced.

I am no expert on oysters nor do I claim to be, but I am someone who has spent the entirety of their life living on the coast of North Carolina. I have seen first-hand how our town has grown and how our environment and economy are being impacted by this growth. There is a scale of balance between the environment and the economy, where one is increased, the other will fall. The development of homes benefits the economy but has a negative impact on the environment through pollution of the waterways due to runoff. However, oysters are natural filters that filter out the pollution created in the waterways when homes are built and when tourists come through our town. There is a way to balance the scale. A way to keep boosting our economy while also protecting our waterways and environment for many generations to come. Oysters are one of the ways to balance the scale between the environment and the economy.

So, lease the land to grow oysters. Boost the North Carolina economy while also cleaning our waterways. Balance the scale for coastal North Carolina.

Lara Philips

Cape Carteret