by Sam Wilson
Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Lumina News file photo 

The North Carolina Coastal Federation will hold its inaugural Shellebration, a statewide oyster roast to raise money for the organization’s educational programs, on Saturday, March 1.

As fish depend on clean, clear water, so does the Cape Fear region’s popularity among beach-goers.

And to celebrate an indispensible contributor to the region’s water quality, the North Carolina Coastal Federation will hold a special celebration to raise funds while raising awareness of the oyster’s importance to the coast.

On March 1, the federation’s four offices in Wrightsville Beach, Manteo, Newport and Raleigh will hold their inaugural Shellebration, a statewide oyster roast to raise money for the organization’s educational programs.

The Wrightsville Beach office’s event will take place at Tidal Creek Cooperative Food Market from 4-7 p.m.

“We were trying to think of something we could do statewide on the same day to focus our efforts and bring a lot of attention to the coastal environment,” said Ted Wilgis, the educational coordinator for the Southeast Regional Office. “So we thought, what’s a theme we can work around that people will identify with?”

The organization settled on a series of oyster roasts, capitalizing on their popularity as a delicacy in the coastal South and their importance to the ecosystems the nonprofit environmental group works to protect.

Wilgis said the state’s oyster populations have declined precipitously throughout time, owing to unsustainable fishing practices and loss of their estuarine and coastal environment. Estimates vary, but he said many scientists believe populations have dropped by at least half from historic levels.

“People don’t realize that they’re filter feeders and they filter out tremendous amounts of sediments, excess algae and other pollutants that could potentially lead to algal blooms and fish kills,” Wilgis said. “That plays a huge part in our creeks and sounds, and provides clearer water for plants and animals to live in.”

It provides a significant economic impact as well. In 2011, commercial fishermen in North Carolina harvested about $4.5 million worth of oysters, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources stated. Those landings are not static, though, and that total dropped to $2.9 million in 2012, the last year DENR made those statistics available.

Wilgis said the species harvested in N.C., the Eastern Oyster, is still recovering. Historically, he said fishermen in the early 1900s were harvesting up to 800,000 bushels per year, but those unsustainable landings steadily declined throughout the next century, hitting an all-time low of 34,000 bushels in 1994. The Coastal Federation has worked to restore oyster reef habitat throughout its more than 30-year history, sinking more than 70,000 bushels of recycled oyster shells up and down the coast.

It also provides an outdoor classroom for the federation to spread its message.

“We’re focusing on oysters and how important they are in terms of protecting and restoring our coastal waters and estuaries,” Wilgis said. “But, at the same time, it’s the fundraising event for all our classroom programs, bringing kids out to the coast on trips to the salt marshes and to the coast center, laying the groundwork for sustainable funding as grant funding becomes tighter and tighter.”


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