To combat historic oyster loss, Audubon restores reefs on Cape Fear

Oyster shells and concrete balls make up Audubon’s reef and provide a substrate for baby oysters to latch onto and thrive. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy of Lindsay Addison)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Audubon North Carolina is hoping to help out the dwindling oyster population, and the overall ecosystem, with a $500,000 project in the lower Cape Fear River.

In early September, the conservation nonprofit completed the first of four planned oyster reefs at Shellbed Island, near the mouth of the river.

Using 140 concrete reef balls and 2,600 oyster shell bags, Audubon constructed three 160-foot-long sills to restore bird and fish habitats and improve water quality.


Coastal biologist Lindsay Addison explains oysters are fundamental to the ecosystem, filtering up to 50 gallons of water each day and providing habitats for other creatures’ benefit.

“Their shells, altogether, form an oyster reef, and that structure provides little homes for a whole bunch of other marine organisms: crabs, fish, things that people like to harvest recreationally or commercially,” Addison said, “as well as just critters that are important to the whole food web.”

Although the shellfish is vital, its numbers are plummeting. Some estimates show the Cape Fear River oyster population is at 10% of historic levels, according to the North Carolina Coastal Federation. The loss is attributed to hurricanes, poor water quality, overharvesting and other threats.

But the oyster shells and concrete balls that make up Audubon’s reef will provide a substrate for baby oysters to latch onto and thrive. New shellfish are expected to start growing there within the year.

The American oystercatcher, a bird known for its bright red bill and yellow eyes, is one of the animals that will most benefit from the reef project. While providing a foraging ground, oyster reefs also protect their nests from king tides and boat wakes.

The oyster reef at Shellbed Island took about two weeks to build, but the permitting and researching of the site began back in 2017. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provided funding for the project, using community service funds paid by Duke Energy after it pleaded guilty to Clean Water Act violations for unpermitted discharge and failed maintenance of coal ash impoundments at its facilities, according to Audubon Conservation Director Curtis Smalling.

Audubon is now awaiting funding to proceed with the three other planned oyster reefs in the lower Cape Fear River, all of which are permitted and designed.

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