Pew, The Nature Conservancy Scale Partnership With Oyster Farmers to Restore Marine Ecosystems

Additional $6.3 million for the Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR) program will advance resilient aquaculture, ocean health, and equity for shellfish growers

Today, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and The Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew) announced the second phase of their Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR) program, which is restoring coastal ecosystems and fostering a thriving oyster aquaculture industry in the U.S. Over the next four years, an additional $6.3 million in funding will sustain efforts to rebuild oyster reefs, as well as promote innovation, resilience, and diversity within the oyster aquaculture industry.

Phase two of SOAR significantly builds upon the initial $5 million phase one investment through a $3 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF)’s National Coastal Resilience Fund and an additional $3.3 million from Builders Initiative, the philanthropic team of Builders Vision.

A portion of the funds will support the SOAR Purchase Program, which buys oysters from growers and deploys them in oyster reef restoration projects throughout the country. The remaining funding will be allocated to the SOAR Shellfish Growers Resiliency Fund, which invests in projects that advance collaborative marine conservation efforts, increase economic opportunities for shellfish farming in the United States, and improve representation and equity in oyster aquaculture and conservation. Robust monitoring will measure the benefits of these efforts to the environment, eroding shorelines, and working waterfronts.

Together, the SOAR Purchase Program and Shellfish Growers Resiliency Fund are helping to mitigate the immediate effects of climate change and build resilience for the future, as well as strengthening relationships throughout the aquaculture industry.

Oysters and the reefs they form are integral to the health of our oceans and coasts; a single adult oyster can filter excess nutrients from up to 50 gallons of water a day, while reefs of hundreds of thousands of oysters clustered together provide food and shelter for other marine species and help protect shorelines from rising tides and coastal erosion. But over the last 150 years, 85% of oyster reefs have been lost to overharvesting, pollution, disease, and climate change, making them one of the world’s most threatened marine habitats. When restaurant closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic saddled oyster farms with unsellable inventory in 2020, it created an opportunity to address both problems with a single solution.

In partnership with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), TNC and Pew launched SOAR in 2020 to simultaneously support struggling growers and imperiled oyster reef ecosystems. In its first two years, the Purchase Program redirected 3.5 million oysters from farms to 25 sites, encompassing 40 acres of oyster reef, while supporting 125 shellfish companies and preserving more than 450 jobs.

“Oysters—whether farmed or wild—are environmental powerhouses, improving water quality, providing wildlife habitat, and protecting against erosion,” said Boze Hancock, TNC’s senior marine restoration scientist. “This sets shellfish growers up to be one of our strongest allies in the recovery and protection of oyster reefs.”

Although the economic impact the pandemic had on oyster farms has largely abated, the success of SOAR’s approach demonstrated how, if scaled, the effort can significantly benefit coastal ecosystems and communities. In its next phase, the Purchase Program will repurpose up to 2.5 million additional farmed oysters to rebuild 30 acres of reefs spanning 12 restoration sites in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, California, and Washington state, supporting 100 farms and 300 jobs.

“After seeing the extraordinary benefits of leveraging farmed oysters in restoration sites, it became clear to us that this model of collaboration between the aquaculture sector and ecosystem restoration has the potential to be scaled in the U.S. and around the world,” said Robert Jones, TNC’s global lead for aquaculture. “As we expand the scope of the project, we’re eager to realize the potential of partnering with farmers on conservation and consider where and how we might apply the model next.”

The Shellfish Growers Resiliency Fund, launched in 2021, a year after the Purchase Program, is a partnership between Builders Initiative, TNC, Pew, NOAA, USDA, state management agencies, and shellfish growers’ associations. To date, the fund has distributed a total of $1 million, supporting 36 projects in 16 coastal U.S. states, including educational initiatives to promote Indigenous-led hatcheries in Alaska; experimental development of new substrate structures that stimulate oyster growth on farms and reefs; and recycling programs that turn restaurants’ oyster shell waste into ecological barriers against flooding. Read more success stories from the first phase.

This next phase of the fund’s work will build on the success of the initial grants and offer even more opportunities to farmers and aligned organizations. With support from Builders Initiative, the fund will create an additional 50 industry-led projects, with a focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. In the selection process, priority will be given to proposals for aquaculture and restoration projects that benefit underserved and underrepresented communities.

“Supporting shellfish farmers from underrepresented communities to expand innovative, environmentally friendly business practices that also help restore marine habitat is a win-win,” said Aaron Kornbluth, a senior officer with Pew’s conserving marine life in the U.S. project.

“Farmers are responsible for feeding the planet, and with that comes a call to action and innovation,” said Peter Bryant, oceans program director for Builders Initiative. “We also know that underrepresented communities are usually at the forefront of such courageous leadership in the oceans and food systems. By prioritizing justice and inclusion, SOAR 2.0 allows their ideas to be truly activated and achieved.”

The Purchase Program and Shellfish Growers Resiliency Fund will begin accepting applications later this year. For the latest information, visit nature.org/SOAR. Growers interested in participating in either program can email [email protected].

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