When the COVID-19 outbreak shuttered restaurants throughout the country, commercial oyster growers saw their sales plummet. At the same time, the pandemic forced many organizations that were restoring native oyster reefs to suspend their work. During this challenging period, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the U.S. project and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) recognized an opportunity to connect the two groups through an effort that we named Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR).
This collaboration between Pew and TNC has repurposed millions of farmed oysters—that might have otherwise been discarded because they were too large for consumers—for reef restoration, securing substantial economic and conservation wins. SOAR’s oyster purchase program, which buys oversized oysters that are less commercially viable for sale to restaurants and plants them in restoration sites in seven states, began in early 2020. To date, SOAR has purchased more than 3.5 million oysters from 125 shellfish farms, supporting more than 450 jobs.
“It is remarkable just how mutually beneficial oyster aquaculture can be for coastal economies and ecosystems—which is where the idea for SOAR originates,” said Robert Jones, TNC’s global aquaculture lead. “By implementing farmed oysters in restoration projects, we’re able to not only ensure the longevity of independent businesses and sustain good jobs but also recover one of the world's most imperiled marine habitats. It really is a win-win for communities and the environment.”
One of those businesses belongs to oyster grower Sue Wicks, who opened Violet Cove Oyster Company on Long Island, New York, after a storied career as a player in the Women’s National Basketball Association and as a college coach.
“With all the uncertainty of COVID, I feared not being able to pay my crew and losing a ton of oysters as restaurants, our sole buyers, were shut down,” Wicks said. “SOAR was there for the oyster farmers with immediate and direct help that got us though a dark moment. The infusion of cash was desperately needed for our payroll, but just as important was the infusion of hope, community, and support when we needed it most. We are forever grateful to SOAR.”
SOAR also advanced interest in establishing a market throughout the country that’s built on the direct sale of shellfish for ecosystem restoration, creating new opportunities for oyster growers like Wicks to tap into. When surveyed, nearly 90% of SOAR participants said they are very interested in future restoration projects, and 94% said the program was “somewhat” or “very” beneficial to their businesses. In addition, SOAR’s Shellfish Growers Resiliency Fund—which launched after the purchase program and funded 36 projects in 16 coastal U.S. states—provided opportunities to further build connections among shellfish growers, scientists, resource managers, and the public.
Healthy native oyster populations play important roles in the environment, in addition to their economic benefits to many coastal communities. Productive oyster reefs create habitat for marine life, filter pollutants from water, and in some circumstances can stabilize shorelines and absorb wave energy from increasingly damaging storms. However, decades of overharvesting, disease, and habitat modification have led to steep declines of wild oysters in the U.S. as well as throughout the globe.
SOAR’s work has tested little-used reef restoration practices on a larger scale than ever before. Rather than the traditional method of adding larval and young oysters to restoration sites, the program added larger and older oysters that can filter more water, are more resistant to predators, and produce more larvae—meaning they’re more productive. Oysters purchased through SOAR have subsequently helped rebuild nearly 40 acres of reef throughout the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, and Washington state, and initial monitoring data from several New England sites demonstrates that this method has been quite successful.
In Great Bay, New Hampshire, where SOAR added over 300,000 mature oysters to a restoration site, scientists measured the largest surge in young oysters in nearly two decades. Biological monitoring at other restored areas along the southern shores of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, shows similar progress. And in a few places like Ocean County, New Jersey, new programs are being funded to likewise engage the aquaculture industry in reef restoration. Other states are also looking to adopt SOAR’s model and have approached Pew and TNC for advice on replicating it.
A second phase of the SOAR program, again led by Pew and TNC, will launch in the near future. Its goal: to leverage SOAR’s momentum to advance a national conversation about how the benefits of partnering with ocean farmers extend far beyond the restoration of coastal habitat.
Aaron Kornbluth is a senior officer, Joseph Gordon is a project director, and Zack Greenberg is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the U.S. project.