Measuring the Cultural Value of Oysters

Most people from oyster-producing regions like the Chesapeake can attest to the fact that oysters are important the the social fabric of the community. In many towns that date back to the colonial era, oyster shells literally line Main Street and form the foundation of the town. In others, they form the basis of a modern-day bar scene boasting of “merroir” of the oysters alongside terroir of the wine. When the ecosystem around these kinds of places changes (think warming waters, acidified waters, introduced species who also love oysters), the resource underpinning this aspect of culture and heritage can be threatened. What does that mean for the humans so connected to the briny bivalve?

Historic Baltimore Shucking House. Courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library

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The disastrous feedback of what happens when fisheries funding dries up

Last week I had the good fortune of attending the NC Oyster Summit, hosted  by the NC Coastal Federation in the Museum of Natural Sciences. We talked about the wonders that oyster restoration and aquaculture development can do for water quality, economic development, and taste buds. We enjoyed the demonstration of ‘merriore’, or the taste of the sea that lends a particular flavor to each oyster that captures the ecosystem it grew in. Yet, the fact that stuck with me most is that despite all of these wonderful celebrations of the oyster for the health and well-being of NC’s coastal communities, funding cuts of around 40% to the Department of Marine Fisheries mean that a large portion of the Albemarle Sound remains closed to harvest or aquaculture because there are no staff to check those oysters for public health risks.

The “Administrative Closure” of the most northern stretches of the state’s prized Albemarle-Pamlico estuary system is a worrying precedent in many ways that highlight how leadership withdrawal of support for science can trickle down to real economic, environmental, and cultural harm.

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Beaufort NOAA Lab Builds Community: It would be a huge loss to say goodbye

Hopefully many of our faithful readers have seen the sad announcement that the NOAA lab in Beaufort, NC may be no more. The main reason cited for the potential closure is financial – the cost of maintaining an aging building. Our friends over at the fisheries blog have written a sound debunking of this reasoning, also lamenting the loss of an institution over a century old and hub of fisheries research for the mid-Atlantic. In short, the Beaufort Lab represents a strong history of productive research, recent investment into infrastructure, and a critical part of a much larger marine science community in the region. It’s fair to say that the lab is the founding member and backbone of a marine science consortium  with the Rachel Carson National Estuarine Research Reserves, Duke University, NC State, the University of North Carolina, NC Division of Marine Fisheries, and Carteret Community College.

Beyond the institutions in a list, the Beaufort lab cements a broader community and economy of Carteret County, which is still largely based on fishing. While relations with the universities and state fisheries enforcement can sometimes be strained, NOAA rises above as a voice of reason and glue of collaboration around protecting our marine resources for food, economy, and society. If you believe me, there are steps you should take right now to voice your support for the lab by contacting local Congressional representation – those with the power to stop the closure: Congressman Walter Jones, Senator Kay Hagen, and Senator Richard Burr – and write a public comment to the House Committee currently reviewing the decision. For those who need a little more context and information, read on for some personal testimony demonstrating the value of the Beaufort lab I observed during my dissertation work in the area, which was focused on collaborative fisheries research. In a nutshell, I’ve observed how the Beaufort lab builds relationships between scientists and fishermen and therefore, indirectly, trust in NOAA. Read More

Know Your Fishermen as well as your Farmer

Members of Walking Fish in NC pick up their shar, photo by author

Members of Walking Fish in NC pick up their share, photo by author

amysquareFisheries had their ups and downs in the US in 2012. We’ve all heard the stories of overfishing, but there were also a few glimmers of hope as the New England cod fishery proposed to open previously closed areas, the Chesapeake oysters showed slight recovery, and MSC certification expanded and became more popular. News on the social side of the fishery – the fishermen and their families – is not as prevalent outside the small towns where they live. However, some of the most exciting developments happened on this front, starting with official community supported fisheries declaring themselves here to stay. They held a successful summit in New Hampshire this past July, placing them more in the public eye than ever before.

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Aquaculture in North Carolina: White Rock Fish Farm

“It’s a mom and pop operation, you could say”, described Ted Davis, owner of White Rock Fish Farm in Vanceboro NC. His smile extended ear to ear as he talked about his farm – and the length he goes to ensure his fish are never stressed on their way to the market. The trick? The farm’s small size – 8 ponds – allow the fish to be harvested by hand, each one receiving individual attention on their way to a shipping container. Another thing that makes his farm special? The hybrid striped bass have personality. They’re scared of tractors, eat more when there’s algae in their pond, and elicit hugs from visiting children.

Mr. Davis takes a whole day, with a helper, in harvesting his hybrid striped bass before they begin their frozen journey to Canada. Other growers, including his neighbors down the road, will spend just hours handling even more fish. Hybrid striped bass, however, bleed when they’re stressed. This turns their flesh and fins red, muddling the prized stripes for the marketplace. Plus, stressed fish release stress hormones and other chemicals that consumers can taste. So the White Rock way is to remove as much stress from the fish’s life as possible. Read More

Core Themes for 2012: Highlighting the Rural Voice

Oyster shell, photo by author

Imagine the last time you went to an oyster roast – good food, happy friends, and maybe a delicious smelling fire to warm your toes. Someone brought warm homemade crackers. The youngest in the crowd is both delighted and disgusted at the discovery of a lucky oyster crab in the corner of his oyster shell.

Moments like these that help define what sustainability means – a desire for the continued existence of those oyster roasts. That requires healthy estuaries to make oysters every year, careers that keep people in the community, and healthy local farming for trees and agriculture. Moments like these define the word ‘rural’, where residents are dependent on the natural resources they interact with daily for food and livelihood. This could mean life on a farm in one of the most sparsely populated regions of the country or a piece of the rural carved out of an increasingly urbanized landscape. Rural describes an ethic and a way of life more than any particular location.

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