July 15, 2008

State Budget Backs Efforts to Restore Oysters

By Gareth McGrath, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.

Jul. 13--North Carolina is about to throw big bucks at the humble oyster, long the poster child of what's wrong with the coast, to try to boost stocks of the depleted bivalve.

The state budget passed by legislators includes $4.3 million for a research hatchery at the University of North Carolina Wilmington,

It also earmarks $2 million for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries to fund six new positions and add equipment to expand the agency's oyster sanctuary program. Approximately $600,000 of that amount will be transferred from N.C. Aquariums, which is losing oversight of the oyster hatchery program.

The change in oversight will result in no layoffs or transfer of aquarium staff.

The research lab is expected to be the first step in a multi-pronged effort that could later include a production-scale hatchery and additional research sites spread along the coast.

"Today is a good day for oysters and water quality in North Carolina," said Ted Wilgis, coastal outreach specialist with the N.C. Coastal Federation. "We've still got a long way to go. But this is a very important step in the right direction."

North Carolina has lost nearly 90 percent of its oyster reefs since the early 20th century due to a combination of overfishing, disease and declining water quality.

That in turn has further eroded the health of the coast's waters, since one oyster can cleanse harmful pollutants from as much as 50 gallons of water a day.

Along with being a lucrative and historical fishery for North Carolina fishermen, oyster reefs play a pivotal role in providing habitat and protection for a slew of fish and other marine critters.

Craig Hardy, chief of Marine Fisheries' resource enhancement section, said the additional funds would help boost the state's effort to bring back the oyster.

"What we're doing right now is the bare minimum, and we're not going to get the necessary results operating at the bare minimum," he said.

Among other things, officials said, the research lab would look to develop a hardier and more disease-resistant brood stock that could be used in future public or private hatcheries. Disease is probably the biggest factor limiting the restoration of oysters in North Carolina waters.

"This is going to be a very important step in helping move us to the next level," Hardy said, noting that states like Maryland and Virginia already operate research hatcheries.

The hatchery is planned as part of a larger project that includes UNCW's 80,000-square-foot marine biotechnology building, a two-story structure that would house 13 new labs and more than 50 offices. One of the facility's primary goals would be to help researchers and work with the private sector to bring scientific discoveries to market, a growing and lucrative endeavor for institutions nationwide.

But Mark Lanier, special assistant to UNCW Chancellor Rosemary DePaolo, said the research hatchery could be built as a standalone structure connected to the larger building when money for its construction becomes available. Both would be built south of the existing center.

Lanier added that it was too early to talk about a ground-breaking date for either facility and that both would require permitting approval from New Hanover County.


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