The Artificial Reef Program run by the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries is usually busy. While there are several local artificial reef association groups along the N.C. Coast, every N.C. artificial reef project must be coordinated through the DMF Artificial Reef Program.

One of the current points of emphasis is estuarine reefs, especially oyster sanctuaries. These projects don’t just add habitat for fish, crabs and marine plants, but once oyster spat attach and begin growing, the oysters filter the water and a single 3 inch oyster can filter more than 30 gallons of water per day.
Most of these reefs are in water deep enough to easily traverse, but a 2017-2018 winter and spring project has been to mark the boundaries so boaters can avoid and fishermen easily locate the reefs. The buoys used to mark the estuarine reefs are white, with orange reflective striping and an orange diamond with the word reef above it. If the buoys mark an oyster sanctuary, that is also marked on the buoy.

One of the newest of these reefs is AR 491. This reef was completed during the fall of 2017 just offshore of Carolina Beach State Park in the Cape Fear River. AR 491 covers five acres of bottom and one acre was covered with 700 tons of small crushed concrete thanks to a partnership with the N.C. Coastal Federation. This was deployed on the northernmost section of the site to form a low relief hard bottom area.

Jason Peters of the DMF Artificial Reef Program, said they expect this site to gather oyster spat, grow oysters and recruit the fish that associate with them. Peters added that if AR 491 is successful in recruiting oysters, it will become a de-facto oyster sanctuary, as the Cape Fear River is closed to oyster harvest in that area.

AR 491 is the only estuarine reef in the Cape Fear River. It is located just offshore of Carolina Beach State Park near the Snows Cut Channel. The coordinates of the four corners are: 34.02.910’ N and 077.55.360’ W; 34.02.910’ N and 077.55.300’ W; 34.02.790’ N and 077.55.300’ W; and 34.02.790’ N and 77.55.360’ W. The corners of this reef are currently marked with pilings. AR 491 is not yet included in the Artificial Reefs Section of the DMF website (www.ncdmf.net) or in the current Artificial Reef Guide booklet. It will be added to the website at its next update and in the Artificial Reef Guide booklet in its next edition.
The website currently shows an oyster sanctuary in the Cape Fear River behind the spoil island across from the Archer, Daniels, Midland Plant at 33° 55.9740′ North and 077° 58.2360′ West, but this is a proposed reef that has not been built. The funding for it was approved to come from a grant funded by the Coastal Recreational Fishing License Fund, but was returned.

There are numerous estuarine reefs and oyster sanctuaries in other parts of the state. The strong tidal currents of the Cape Fear River and smaller waters elsewhere in Brunswick County kept this area out of consideration for an estuarine reef for many years. AR 491 is a pilot program to see how the reef maintains its integrity and collects marine growth.

N.C. Estuarine Reefs

The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries Artificial Reef Program partners with various agencies and organizations to construct artificial reef sites in ocean and inside waters along the N.C. coast. These artificial reefs create habitat for fish and good habitat helps build healthy fish populations. Carrying that one step farther; healthy fish populations make for good fishing.
In North Carolina, there are two types of manmade reefs: oyster sanctuaries and artificial reefs. According to the N.C. DMF Artificial Reef Guide, the primary function of an oyster sanctuary is to create oyster habitat that will provide brood stock, while supporting diverse and abundant finfish populations. Oyster sanctuaries are constructed in areas where oysters should thrive and they should also help build fish populations. Artificial reefs are constructed primarily as fish habitat and use a variety of materials that also support oyster and marine plant growth.

Estuarine reefs may be artificial reefs, oyster sanctuaries or combinations of the two. These reefs begin in the sounds behind the Outer Banks and, with the addition of AR 491 in the fall of 2017, now extend to Brunswick County, the southernmost N.C. coastal county. There are 21 estuarine reefs, with 14 serving as oyster sanctuaries and expectations AR 491 will develop into an oyster sanctuary in the near future.
Biologists monitor North Carolina’s artificial reefs for material stability, material durability, material performance, essential fish habitat and more. Information from these studies helps guide future enhancements.

Estuarine Artificial Reef Locations

(Courtesy of the NCDMF Website and Artificial Reef Guide)

  • AR 291: Bayview Reef, (25.26.1N and 076.48.48W) 100 feet offshore of the town of Bayview at the mouth of Bath Creek.
  • AR 292: Pungo River Reef, (35.28.35N and 075.34.4W) 80.9° magnetic – 0.8 nm from Pungo River #5 Day Beacon or 227.9° magnetic – 0.5 nm from Quilley Point.
  • AR 296/OS-04: Hatteras Island Business Association Reef/Clam Shoal Oyster Sanctuary, (35.17.3N and 075.37.45W) 8.7° magnetic – 1.4 nm from Frisco Channel Light No. 6.
  • AR 298/OS-06: Ocracoke Reef and Oyster Sanctuary, (35.10.65N and 075.59.8W) 21.9° magnetic – 1.5 nm from Big Foot Slough Channel Light 13.
  • AR 392: New Bern/Neuse River Reef, (35.5.1N and 077.0.7W) 130.1° magnetic – 1.8 nm from Union Point Park.
  • AR 396: Oriental Reef, (35.1.5N and 076.39.7W) 900 yards SE of Whitehurst Point near Oriental.
  • AR 398: New River Reef, (34.39.6N and 077.22.5W) 115° magnetic – 0.4 nm from Town Point.
  • AR 491: Cape Fear River Reef 34.02.850N and 77.55.330W) just offshore of Carolina Beach State Park.

The lists of materials and maps of these reefs, except AR 491, are available in the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries Artificial Reef Guide and on the website at www.ncdmf.

N.C. Oyster Sanctuary Program

North Carolina has one of the most active shellfish restoration efforts in the country. One of the largest programs in this effort is the Oyster Sanctuary Program. Oyster harvest is prohibited in oyster sanctuaries. These areas are protected to encourage the growth of large, healthy oyster populations that can act as a brood stock for the waters around them. Each oyster produces millions of eggs annually that are carried by currents and tides to surrounding areas. By developing and protecting this brood stock, the number of oysters in adjacent waters increases. In oyster sanctuaries, the Division of Marine Fisheries deploys material to build reefs and allow oyster spat to attach and grow.

In addition to attracting native oyster larvae, these reefs also act as habitat for clams, small and juvenile finfish, crabs and shrimp. These are all food for larger fish and attract them. While oyster sanctuaries are closed to oyster fishing they are open to hook-and-line anglers and are often popular and productive fishing spots. Through continued association with various academic institutions, state and federal agencies and collaboration with commercial fishermen, the Oyster sanctuary program continues to develop more refined techniques for siting, building and monitoring oyster sanctuaries.
How are oyster sanctuaries constructed?

A variety of materials are used to create a grid array of mounds, piles and pre-fabricated oyster collecting units. This is engineered to provide quality surface area, vertical relief, varying profile and variations in bottom contour, plus availability and surface area for stationary marine plants and invertebrates — collectively known as complexity and all are requirements for successful oyster reefs. The reefs are constructed using a variety of materials suitable for oyster settlement, survival and growth. These materials include: natural oyster and clam shell, class B rip-rap marl, Reef Balls™, concrete pipes, recycled crushed concrete and various types of mined rock.

Because bottom disturbing gear is prohibited on sanctuaries, the Division of Marine Fisheries seeks input on the best area to locate a site to minimize interactions with trawls, while maximizing the benefits of the site to oystermen and recreational fishermen.

NC OYSTER SANCTUARIES

(Locations and material summaries courtesy of NCDMF Website and Artificial Reef Guide)

  • Croatan Sound: (OS-01, 35.804737N and 075.638933W) Established in 1996, this sanctuary is comprised of 1,800 tons of rip rap, oyster shells surf clam shells and limestone marl. In 2013, 290 Pallet Reef Balls were deployed on the site. Partners include the Division of Marine Fisheries and NOAA Fisheries.
  • Crab Hole: (OS-05, 35.381877N and 076.369353W) Established in 2003, this sanctuary is comprised of 38,076 tons of rip rap. Partners include the Division of Marine Fisheries, Division of Coastal Management, N.C. Department of Transportation and the Nature Conservancy.
  • Pea Island: (OS-13, 35.666000N and 075.615670W) Established in 2015, this sanctuary consists of 900 tons of precast concrete, 1,800 tons of processed recycled concrete and 360 Ultra Reef Balls™. Funding for this sanctuary was provided through the N.C. Coastal Recreational Fishing License sales.
  • Long Shoal: (OS-11, 35.563450N and 075.830600W) Established in 2013, 880 Ultra Reef Balls™ were deployed in collaboration with the United States Navy as a mitigation project for a nearby bombing range in Pamlico Sound and The Nature Conservancy.
  • Gibbs Shoal: (OS-10, 34.980862N and 076.356053) Established in 2009, this sanctuary consists of 16,075 tons of rip rap limestone marl, 2,674 Ultra Reef Balls™ and 924 “reef cubes.” Funding for this sanctuary was provided through N.C. Coastal Recreational Fishing license sales.
  • Deep Bay: (OS-02, 35.291333N and 75.619667W) Established in 1996, this sanctuary is comprised of 1,300 tons of rip rap, limestone, oyster shells surf clam shells and an additional 290 Bay Reef Balls™ which were deployed on the site in 2014. Partners include the Division of Marine Fisheries and NOAA Fisheries.
  • West Bluff: (OS-09, 35.728055N and 075.675138W) This sanctuary is located south of Bluff Point and east of Great Island between Swan Quarter Bay and Wysocking Bay. It consists of approximately 56 150-ton mounds, 10 Ultra Reef Balls™, 75 Pallet Reef Balls™ and 125 Bay Reef Balls™. West Bluff is planned to be the location of future expansion from a US Army Corps of Engineers mitigation project.
  • Clam Shoal: (OS-04, AR 296, 35.180250N and 075.993867W) Established in 1996, this sanctuary is comprised 38,359 tons of rip rap limestone marl. Partners include the Division of Marine Fisheries, NOAA Fisheries and The Nature Conservancy.
  • Middle Bay: (OS-07, 35.235967N and 076.502967W) Established in 2004, this sanctuary is comprised of 900 tons of rip rap limestone marl.
    Ocracoke: (OS-06, AR 298, 35.007903N and 076.532583W) Established in 2004, this sanctuary is comprised of 11,347 tons of rip rap limestone marl. Partners include the Division of Marine Fisheries, NOAA Fisheries and The Nature Conservancy.
  • Raccoon Island: (OS-12, 35.090366N and 076.391233W) Established in 2013, this sanctuary is comprised of 1,169 Ultra Reef Balls™, 150 tons of reinforced concrete pipe and 157 tons of processed recycled concrete. Funding for this sanctuary was provided through the N.C. Coastal Recreational Fishing License sales.
  • Neuse River: (OS-08, 35.305000N and 076.168150W) This sanctuary is located on the south shore between South River and Turnagain Bay, just east of Brown’s Creek and currently has 50 – 150 ton mounds.
  • West Bay: (OS-03, 35.455928N and 075.930723W) Established in 1996, this sanctuary is comprised of 2,000 tons of rip rap, oyster shells, surf clam shells and limestone marl. In 2014, 100 Mini Bay Reef Balls were deployed to enhance the site. Partners include the Division of Marine Fisheries and NOAA Fisheries.
  • Little Creek: (35.043600N and 076.514820N) Proposed.
  • Cape Fear River: (33° 55.9740’N and 077° 58.2360’W) Proposed.

Future Oyster Sanctuaries

University research and continual monitoring by the Division of Marine Fisheries has found the reef network is extremely successful as a source of oyster larvae to the overall Pamlico Sound population. New sanctuary sites, will help support the current stock and likely improve the oyster population in the long term. A more abundant oyster population directly translates to improved water quality and health for the ecosystem, as well as more oysters available for harvest.

Oyster sanctuaries are designed and built as a way to give back to North Carolinians. Therefore, the Division of Marine Fisheries seeks public input on the best area to locate a site to minimize interactions with trawls, while maximizing the benefits of the site to oystermen and recreational fishermen. Public meetings are held in the early planning stages of each proposed reef so that comments from the community can be incorporated into reef siting and design.

All of the research on existing oyster sanctuary sites has been positive and the Artificial Reef Programs hopes to be able to establish more in the coming years. They provide habitat for shellfish, crabs, shrimp and fish and the shellfish filter the water. That is good news for fish and fishermen. Check with the Division of Marine Fisheries website (www.ncdmf.net) for updates on all artificial reefs.

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