Stock Assessment on the Horizon

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.

North Carolina Shellfish Initiative to launch Aug. 2

North Carolina to launch state Shellfish Initiative at public event on Aug. 2

MOREHEAD CITY — North Carolina will officially join a national effort that demonstrates the social, economic and environmental importance of shellfish at a public event at the North Carolina State University Center for Marine Sciences and Technology (CMAST) on Aug. 2 from 10 a.m. until noon.

Michael Regan, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ), will announce Governor Cooper’s support for the North Carolina Shellfish Initiative. The statewide initiative is modeled after the National Shellfish Initiative — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) program to increase the population of shellfish in the nation’s coastal waters. The North Carolina Shellfish Initiative will advance the State’s work to strengthen the coastal economy, create jobs and promote sustainable seafood and shellfish restoration.

The new state initiative prioritizes four goals: job creation, protection of water quality, protection of shellfish health and sustainable management.

The North Carolina Shellfish Initiative reflects the growing importance of shellfish conservation and the industry’s benefits to the coastal economy. North Carolina is the sixth state in the country and the first in the southeast to follow the federal model and establish an initiative to increase shellfish.

State shellfish initiatives provide a vehicle to leverage existing partnerships, grant programs and regulatory authorities to maximize the benefits of shellfish. Establishing innovative partnerships among state agencies, local governments, the federal government, the shellfish industry and nonprofit organizations is an effective and efficient way to maintain both vibrant coastal communities and healthy coastal ecosystems.

“North Carolina has a history of collaboration among public, private and academic sectors to transform ideas into actions that advance shellfish restoration and mariculture,” said Dr. Ken Riley, a marine ecologist with NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. “Over the last 15 years, the state has garnered public attention with significant investment in shellfish restoration and the growth of the shellfish farms. NOAA is pleased to partner with the State contributing tools and expertise for siting shellfish farms and oyster restoration projects, which increase opportunities to sustainably harvest shellfish.”

The Aug. 2 announcement is open to the public and will begin with brief remarks from Sec. Regan as well as representatives from other federal, state and private stakeholders involved in shellfish restoration, production and research and development.

Following these remarks, reporters and the public are invited to participate in a short walking tour around CMAST’s campus to learn more about North Carolina shellfish activities and programs from industry, agency, university, and nonprofit partners. The tour will include a visit to the North Carolina Sea Grant Shellfish Farming Demonstration Center, a regional technology center and proving ground for training prospective growers such as commercial fishermen wishing to enter the mariculture industry.

By leveraging partnerships and sharing knowledge and resources through the North Carolina Shellfish Initiative, partners will be able to preserve the state’s rich shellfish history while also fostering a sustainable future.

For more information, contact Erin Fleckenstein with the North Carolina Coastal Federation at erinf@nccoast.org.