Despite a trending decline in oyster populations over the last 200 years in North Carolina, the remaining reefs continue to support a multimillion-dollar commercial fishery ($4,045,444 ex-vessel value in 2016), as well as valuable recreational fisheries. However, the wild stock remains unassessed as there is insufficient data to conduct a traditional stock assessment in North Carolina, limiting the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries’ (DMF) ability to estimate population size and rate of removal.

While considerable effort has gone into aquaculture advances and habitat rehabilitation, less funding has focused on fishery-independent data collection to better manage the wild population of oysters.  In fact, a traditional stock assessment has never been completed in the history of the fishery in North Carolina. With this need in mind, a new project is taking a different approach with a clear goal of designing a statistically robust, cost-effective fishery-independent population survey methodology for subtidal and intertidal oysters in North Carolina.  North Carolina State University and the Nature Conservancy are working with DMF, North Carolina local oystermen and regional university colleagues to develop this sampling methodology and pilot it in a 20-acre natural reef in the Middle Ground region of Pamlico Sound.  With this new sample design, it is hoped that the data gaps currently surrounding the fishery can be filled, which will allow for the future development of a stock assessment. In addition to this pilot study, commercial oystermen will also assist in investigating and quantifying oyster bycatch mortality, another important data gap in fisheries management. Finally, this project will help to map and illustrate the rate of change in the intertidal oyster population south of the Back Sound in North Carolina.

Once completed, the project will recommend fisheries-independent sampling procedures that will support a fisheries-independent sampling program for the wild oyster population in North Carolina by DMF, as well as quantify bycatch injury and mortality of oysters from dredging gear that is important to capture when estimating total mortality rates of oysters.  A noteworthy component to this project is the involvement of fishermen in the fisheries sampling design and process.  The hope is that moving forward, this survey will instill confidence in fishermen with the robustness of the new sampling and the survey will be responsive enough to allow for a more thorough and time-sensitive assessment of the resource. At the end of the day, we all share a similar goal, a thriving and sustainable fishery.

Contact Dan Bowling for more information on future stock assessment projects.