New program aims to boost NC’s growing oyster industry

by Stacia Strong on July 24, 2022 | Reprinted from WRAL

A new effort is underway in the state to help restore wild oyster populations.

The program, which is being run by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), works by partnering with oyster growers.

Many consider program a win-win.

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

“The natural resources conservation service is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and they received funding to help producers implement conservation practices on their lands,” said Erin Fleckenstein with the North Carolina Coastal Federation.

Oyster growers can apply for this cost-share funding to help expand their growing capacity and to help restore 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 and cultch material and then the oysters are allowed to grow up and after a year the oyster farmer can either harvest those oysters or can allow them to continue to grow,” Fleckenstein said.

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

“I haven’t met anyone in North Carolina who is not excited about this,” said Petra Volinski, a supervisory soil conservationist with the NRCS. “I think it’s been a long time coming, there’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes work by our biologists and program staff. I can’t wait to get more people interested and can’t wait to 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.

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

For Hargrove, this isn’t just about being the first in the state to take advantage of this cost-share program, it’s an opportunity to expand his oyster-growing operation.

“[We] get to try another grow-out method,” Hargrove said. “That’s less intense, that would be geared towards more of the traditional roast market of oysters. it makes total sense to try and construct my own reefs that would be used to harvest.”

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 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,” Hargrove said.

The coastal federation is also closely working with natural resources conservation service 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.

© 2022 NC Oyster Trail.