COVID-19 helping to restore reefs from coast-to-coast

Posted at 11:47 AM, Dec 01, 2020

The fog hangs heavy over Great Bay along the New Hampshire seacoast on a raw as Josh Carloni and his wife, Jessica, emerge through the mist on their fishing boat.

They are the owners of Rising Tide Oyster Company, a family-owned business that typically sells thousands of oysters a year to restaurants across New England. But when the novel coronavirus hit back in March, their sales disappeared overnight as restaurants were forced to closed.

“Every time you turn on the news, there’s just more bad news out there,” said Carloni. “Our business is down maybe 20 percent.”

The Carlonis and oyster fisherman across the country were finding themselves in similar positions. They suddenly had thousands of perfectly healthy oysters that needed to be harvested, but there was no place for them to go.

“Oyster farmers had been growing these oysters for three years, and suddenly, they didn’t have a market at all. The pandemic hit oyster farmers across the country hard,” explained Alix Laferriere, who serves as the Marine and Coastal Director for the Nature Conservancy of New Hampshire.

Laferriere and her team thought there was little they could do to help struggling oyster farmers until a few months ago when an anonymous donor gifted a $2 million donation.

With that sudden infusion of cash, Laferriere and her team got to work. With help from the Pew Charitable Trust, they developed the Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR) initiative to buy back five million oysters that needed to be harvested. The program is being deployed in seven states: Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington state.

But it’s not just helping fisherman’s bottom line, it’s also helping estuaries and reefs at the bottom of the ocean.

Turns out oysters don't just taste good; they can do good for the environment. That grant bought back 10,000 of Josh Carloni's oysters. And he isn't just throwing them into the ocean. Laferriere and her team have strategically told him where they should be deployed across the Great Bay Estuary along New Hampshire's coast. Eventually, the oysters will latch on to reefs below and help restore the damage done by decades of overharvesting, pollution and disease.

“It’s this win-win opportunity where we get to put oysters back in the bay and help our local oyster farmers,” explained Briana Group, who also works with the Nature Conservancy of New Hampshire.

One adult oyster can filter up to 30 gallons of water a day, and when they’re filtering that water, they’re removing nitrogen from the ecosystem.

While the program is giving fisherman an infusion of cash, it’s also giving reefs and estuaries across the country an infusion of clean water, courtesy of a 3-inch mollusk.

“There’s nothing bad about this situation; it’s only good,” Laferriere said as she looked out over the ocean.

For fisherman like Josh Carloni, the program means he gets to keep his business afloat for another year, while at the same time, giving back to the environment. And it’s all because of COVID-19.

“It makes us feel really good about doing something good for the environment,” he said.