MOREHEAD CITY – Sandbar Oyster Company has learned to embrace climate change while also working to fight it to help the living shorelines off the coast of North Carolina.
Dr. Niels Lindquist, a researcher at the UNC Institute of Marine Science, and David Cessna (“Clammerhead”), a commercial fisherman, co-founded the company to improve the quality and productivity of coastal oyster ecosystems. They use a biodegradable product – the Oyster Catcher – to overcome problems and create new ways to promote oyster growth and restore estuarine habitats.
Climate change has various effects on shorelines. It has caused water levels to rise and saltwater to move further into estuaries. However, Clammerhead and Lindquist developed a way to help recover and preserve North Carolina’s shorelines.
Through the Oyster Catcher, they gather and attract oysters from the wild, and foster them. Oysters are normally sensitive to environmental changes and need a certain salinity to grow. Climate change has made this difficult, setting the ecosystem off balance.
Oyster Catcher gives oysters a home again in an environmental friendly way. The product dissolves over a period of time so the oysters will eventually attach to the reef itself. If the oysters die, then the material goes away on its own and there is no cleanup process or environmental damage.
“The idea is to not try to manipulate nature but to find the ways that nature will let us work with it so that we can do better for protecting against storms, resources and erosion,” said Clammerhead.
Although climate change presents challenges for their oyster farms, Clammerhead explains how it is also their ally. Due to the effects of a changing climate, there is more need for shoreline restoration, rebuilding habitats and creating new habitats. All of this means more work opportunities for Sandbar.
“With the water levels rising and saltwater moving farther up into the estuaries than where it used to be, that is creating more areas where oysters can grow,” said Clammerhead. “So that gives us more areas to actually do work to try to get ahead of nature.”
Although Sandbar’s primary motive is helping oysters build their natural habitats and restoring natural shorelines, they are working on promoting and leasing the Oyster Catcher to other fishermen and small businesses to help build the market.
“Our business plan is to move forward with the substrate manufacturing production, escalation, doing projects, and that sort of thing, but license out the right to do these services on our behalf to others,” said Clammerhead. “That way we are not just building jobs, we are helping build companies.”
According to Clammerhead, they are working with people who might not be able to make their own businesses successful enough to survive, and giving them an opportunity through a licensing agreement.
These licensing agreements also generate revenue for the business and they expect these agreements to increase in the future.
The sale of oysters also generates revenue. They sell predominantly to boutique and commodity shops. However, this only accounts for a small percentage of their oyster sales. They also sell seed for other growers. This accounts for the smallest amount of revenue, but is higher in number compared to their consumer market sales. Their largest amount of revenue comes from the restoration of living shorelines.
“In order to prove our substrate works, we get oysters, so oysters are substantially a byproduct,” said Clammerhead.
One of these oysters is the Atlantic Emerald, a green gilled oyster. In the past, this oyster had a negative perception throughout the United States, and to sell them, sellers would take up to 25 to 30 percent off the price.
Clammerhead and Lindquist changed that perception. The two received publicity for their Atlantic Emerald by having Rowan Jacobson review the oyster in Tasting Table magazine.
“He even listed the Atlantic Emerald as the ‘Holy Grail’ of oysters in one of his books,” said Clammerhead about Jacobson.
On his oyster-rating website, Jacobson describes the Atlantic Emerald as “firm, salty, and that algae imparts a unique deliciousness that’s hard to describe.”
This trend is catching on, and harvesters are waiting for their oysters to turn green so they can charge two to three times more. This change not only improves the harvester’s revenue, but also allows them to work in the fishing industry year-round.
Green-gilled oysters only grow in the winter, a time when most fisheries are not very productive. However, the spike in recent demand for the oyster has allowed fishermen to keep working at fisheries throughout the winter.
The Atlantic Emerald has also provided an ecological balance. Wild harvesters, who don’t have leases and depend on wild stock, used to not work an area if it had green-gilled oysters. This caused overfishing, detracting resources from those areas. In these cases, the land was unable to replenish those resources, damaging the ecosystem.
“So the change in mind set about the Atlantic Emerald has created not just a fiscal balance but it’s made an ecological balance, so it’s been good on both sides,” said Clammerhead.
This story is from the North Carolina Business News Wire, a service of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.