Oyster reefs are a critical component of South Atlantic coastal systems, providing structure that serves as habitat for fish and shellfish, maintaining healthy water quality and mitigating shoreline erosion. Oysters are also a regional social and economic driver, with annual commercial landings over $5.5 million. Oyster populations have suffered 50% to 90% loss due to over-harvest, disease and habitat damage. This decline has major consequences for the health of our coastal waters and upland communities, making restoration a priority. The gap in documented data on the link between fish and oyster reefs is a limiting factor to growing available funding.

Moving from smaller scale restoration projects to large-scale success is dependent on securing greater funding and increasing public support for both restoration and conservation. In turn, increased support and funding from the public and key state and federal agencies that manage coastal resources depends significantly on documenting and communicating the value of restored oyster habitats in supporting fish populations and protecting shorelines, which are priority targets for resource managers. One of the Conservancy's regional marine conservation program's goals is to significantly increase the population of oysters in the South Atlantic coastal systems in order to support valuable ecosystem services.

Project Overview

The primary focus of this multi-year project was to develop and implement a regional fish productivity monitoring protocol to document the connection between restored oyster reefs, important fish species and the marine food web. To date, fish productivity sampling in the South Atlantic has occurred on a sporadic, localized basis. There is a need to collectively define and test a fish productivity monitoring protocol that can be used on a larger scale, allowing for consistency and comparison of data. 

The project team was comprised of Conservancy staff and technical experts from the University of North Carolina, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and UGA Marine Extension/GA Sea Grant. With multi-year funding from Boeing in South Carolina, monitoring was completed seasonally in 2015 and 2016 at five restored oyster reef restoration sites across North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. A description of the monitoring methods is available in the project’s practitioners’ guide: Sampling Nektonic Organisms Around Restored Oyster Reefs in the South Atlantic (Stone and Brown 2017). The data and information generated from this project will increase direct understanding of the crucial ecosystem service role that restored oyster reefs have in fish production.

Recent Publications:
Baggett, L.P., S.P. Powers, R. Brumbaugh, L.D. Coen, B. DeAngelis, J. Greene, B. Hancock, and S. Morlock, 2014. Oyster habitat restoration monitoring and assessment handbook. The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, VA, USA., 96pp.

Beck, M.W., R.D. Brumbaugh, L. Airoldi, A. Carranza, L.D. Coen, C. Crawford, O. Defeo, G.J. Edgar, B. Hancock, M. Kay, H. Lenihan, M.W. Luckenbach, C.L. Toropova, and G. Zhang. 2011. Oyster Reefs at Risk and Recommendations for Conservation, Restoration, and Management. BioScience 61(2): 107-116.

Grabowski, J. H., R. D. Brumbaugh, R. F. Conrad, A. G. Keeler, J. J. Opaluch, C. H. Peterson, M. F. Piehler, S. P. Powers, A. R. Smyth. 2012. Economic valuation of ecosystem services provided by oyster reefs. BioScience 62(10):900-909.

Philine, S.E., Z. Ermgassen, M.D. Spalding, R.E. Grizzle, R.D. Brumbaugh. 2012. Quantifying the Loss of a Marine Ecosystem Service: Filtration by the Eastern Oyster in US Estuaries. Estuaries and Coasts 36: 36-43.

zu Ermgassen, P.S.E., M.D. Spalding, B. Blake, L.D. Coen, B. Dumbauld, S. Geiger, J.H. Grabowski, R. Grizzle, M. Luckenbach, K. McGraw, B. Rodney, J.L. Ruesink, S.P. Powers, and R. Brumbaugh. 2012a. Historical ecology with real numbers: Past and present extent and biomass of an imperiled estuarine habitat. Proceedings of the Royal Society B on June 13, 2012. 

zu Ermgassen, P.S.E., M.D. Spalding, R. Grizzle, and R. Brumbaugh. 2012b. Quantifying the loss of a marine ecosystem service: filtration by the eastern oyster in U.S. estuaries. Estuaries and Coasts, DOI 10.1007/s12237-012-9559-y 

zu Ermgassen, P. S. E., M. D. Spalding, R. E. Grizzle, R. D. Braumbaugh. 2013. Quantifying the loss of a marine ecosystem service: filtration by the Eastern oyster in US Estuaries. Estuaries and Coasts 36:36-43.


 Further Reading