Oyster reef revival in Great Bay: How the program is expanding – and with more funds

By: - March 20, 2023 5:01 am

Sisters Laura Brown (left) and Krystin Ward harvest oysters for the SOAR program from Brown’s farm in Little Bay, called Fox Point Oysters. (Jerry Monkman | EcoPhotography)

One thousand acres of New Hampshire’s Great Bay were once covered by live oyster reefs. Today, 90 percent have vanished, lost to pollution, disease, and harvest.

But the tidal estuary is now the site of a celebrated revival, where a pilot restoration project proved so successful, it’s getting a funding boost in the millions and expanding to additional states. 

The Nature Conservancy and Pew Charitable Trusts are launching the second phase of their “Support Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration” program, also known as SOAR. Over the next four years, the program will see an additional $6.3 million in funding to rebuild oyster reefs and foster a thriving aquaculture industry. 

In 2019, the Nature Conservancy piloted a program with oyster farmers in Great Bay, buying oysters and using them in reef restoration projects throughout the country. Then in 2020, in partnership with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Department of Agriculture, the SOAR program officially launched to support struggling farmers with unsellable inventory amid COVID-prompted restaurant closures, while simultaneously restoring imperiled oyster reef ecosystems.

In its first two years, the program redirected 3.5 million oysters from farms to 25 locations, encompassing 40 acres of oyster reefs.

Twenty-nine oyster farmers in New Hampshire and Maine helped deploy more than 666,000 of their own oysters across two acres of reefs in Great Bay, which spans both Rockingham and Strafford counties. 

The Nature Conservancy’s Great Bay program manager, Brianna Group. (Jerry Monkman | EcoPhotography)

“Oysters are vitally important to the overall health of the Great Bay estuary,” said Brianna Group, Great Bay program manager at the Nature Conservancy. “These seemingly small, unassuming creatures provide a number of big, important benefits, such as improving water quality, creating habitat for other wildlife, and shoreline protection from erosion and storm surges.”

Group called the partnership a “win-win,” in that it helps support the sustainability of an industry while improving ecological health. 

The Nature Conservancy dubs oysters “an environmental powerhouse.” A single adult oyster can filter excess nutrients from up to 50 gallons of water a day. Oyster reefs, with hundreds and thousands clustered together, provide food and shelter for other marine species, protect shorelines, and serve as natural filtration. 

But 85 percent of the world’s oyster reefs have been lost to overharvesting, pollution, disease, and climate change over the last 150 years.

Designated as one of 28 estuaries of national significance by the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Estuary Program, Great Bay has experienced water quality issues for years as a result of nitrogen pollution. Costly and, at times, controversial cleanup efforts have been ongoing.

In this next phase of SOAR, the program will repurpose up to 2.5 million additional farmed oysters to rebuild 30 acres of reefs spanning restoration sites in New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, California, and Washington state – supporting 100 farms and 300 jobs in the process.

The SOAR purchase program will start accepting applications later this year. For more information, visit nature.org/SOAR. New Hampshire growers can contact Group at [email protected].

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Hadley Barndollar
Hadley Barndollar

Hadley Barndollar covers climate, energy, environment, and the opioid crisis for the New Hampshire Bulletin. Previously, she was the New England regional reporter for the USA TODAY Network and was named Reporter of the Year by the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Email: [email protected]