SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Audubon North Carolina is working to enhance the oyster reef habitat on the Cape Fear River by developing plans for new oyster reefs at six sanctuary islands along the river.
Not only would the oyster reefs provide food for the American oystercatcher, a species of bird that lives and nests along the river, but they would be beneficial for the “overall ecosystem,” said Lindsay Addison, coastal biologist with Audubon North Carolina.
“Oysters are sort of at the base of a healthy ecosystem, of a healthy Cape Fear River ecosystem,” Addison said.
With the support of the Orton Foundation, Addison said the organization is in the first phase of enhancing the oyster reef habitat, determining where it can create new oyster reefs and going through the permitting process to build the reefs. The organization is looking at Shellbed Island and Striking Island, two natural marsh islands across from Southport, as possible locations for some of the reefs.
An oyster reef is a “planned pile of shell” or rocks that baby oysters like to attach to and grow on, Addison said.
“Oysters, they have a larvae stage where they’re free floating in the water column, then they land on something suitable and they grow a little shell and grow into an adult oyster,” Addison said. “All these little larvae oysters in the water are trying to find the right spot to adhere to.”
The first phase of the oyster reef project also involves assessing the health of the oysters in the river at the six “sites of interest,” Addison said. Audubon North Carolina is working with the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Marine Science on the oyster health assessment.
The second phase of the project entails constructing the reefs, while phase three includes monitoring the reefs and making sure they do well.
Addison said Audubon North Carolina has been monitoring eight sanctuary islands along the Cape Fear River since the 1980s and the oyster reef project is part of an ongoing effort to better the habitat for thousands of birds and more than 20 different species, including the royal tern, sandwich tern, great egret, white ibis, American oystercatcher and brown pelican, that nest on the islands.
“The Lower Cape Fear River supports about a third of the nesting coastal water birds in North Carolina, it’s one of the largest concentrations of nesting coastal water birds in the state,” Addison said. “So it’s very important to maintain stable and healthy populations of these species.”
Addison said she hopes to receive permits this year allowing Audubon North Carolina to build the oyster reefs.