Oyster reef monitoring with the NCCF

Finally, after being on the mailing list for months and not attending a single event, went out with the North Carolina Coastal Federation today to monitor the fauna of artificially created oyster reefs at Dick's Bay, Masonboro Island.

The volunteers met at the NC Wildlife Resource Commission's boat ramp at the intersection of Snow's Cut and the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) at the perky hour of 9am, where we were met by Tracy Skrabal and Ted Wilgis, staff members with NCCF. We started with the obligatory doughnuts and introduction session, before Tracy and Ted gave a brief spiel of the oyster reef ecosystem in the area and what we'll be doing this morning.

Ted expounding on the oyster's life cycle

Oysters used to be the main protein source for communities along US East Coast! (Quite sure I would be vegetarian if I lived during those times...) And trawlers used to haul millions of bushels annually for the oyster fisheries. Note the term 'used to', for the oyster has fallen prey to the all too familiar and much lamented 'tragedy of the commons' syndrome. Oyster populations have crashed pretty much along much of the East Coast due to overharvesting. The problem with oyster recruitment though, is that oyster larvae like to settle almost exclusively on oyster shells. Since trawling removes the whole animal, shell and all, removing fishing pressure alone won't do much to bring oyster populations back.

NCCF has been creating oyster reefs using oyster shells along the coast of NC to try and rebuild some of the population. Something I really appreciate about this effort, is that the restoration efforts are carried out in conjunction with research conducted at UNCW. So rather than blindly dumping shells into the ICW and hoping for the best, elements of reef design are taken into account, such as reef shape, depth, and rugosity. Today's monitoring followed-up the establishment and seeding of the oyster reefs in April/May this year. Ted is interested to find out if nekton establish on and inhabit the artificially created reefs, compared between different reef shapes and with a natural reef.

Views from the ICW

Masonboro Island

Dark clouds loomed threateningly when we approached the oyster reefs, but people's moods remained sunny, even through the brief spot of cold rain that washed over us as we stepped onto the first reef. The bay was exceedingly shallow and we had to wade through waist-deep water at times to reach the monitoring sites. Brrrr! I applaud winter volunteers! It was exhilarating to slip and slide through mud and inhale that glorious hydrogen sulphide again...ah...how I miss inter-tidal work!

Each team quickly set-up on a reef and excavated shells from a quadrat (made rather ingeniously from a pail with the bottom cut out), till we reached the anoxic layer. Then we counted and measured oyster spat and counted all other animals that we could find. Since I was the least wary of the vernier calipers, ended up in charge of measuring the spat, ha. Worked till the tide started coming in, and broke for drinks and snacks, kindly provided by NCCF.

Some of the oyster spats were huge! Our largest measured more than 4cm in length. And that was from recruitment in April/May. Also tallied mud crabs, barnacles, polychaetes and bryozoans (though I suspect we might be the only group that recorded bryozoans...). With the water coming up, we floated the equipment back to the boats before clambering back on, muddy and probably stinky, but extremely gratified. Looking forward to another round of fieldwork!


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