I love it when things come together to benefit people, animals & nature. So cool that they thought of this, especially since so many things are connected.

Oyster farmers turn to conservation to survive

Michael Casey
DURHAM, N.H. – When the pandemic struck last year, oyster farmer Chris Burtis soon realized the restaurants that bought his oysters had mostly closed. Without a new market, his Ferda Farms faced potential economic ruin.
Then, Burtis heard The Nature Conservancy in partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts was buying millions of bivalves around the country for rebuilding decimated oyster reefs – and he quickly joined the effort. One recent day, he pulled up cages packed with eastern oysters on the New Meadows River in Brunswick, Maine, readying them to be trucked to oyster reefs on a patch of New Hampshire’s Great Bay.
“Yeah, it really has been kind of a lifesaver to be able to keep some revenue coming in,” said Burtis, decked out in orange waders as he poured the caged oysters into shipping crates.
The program, known as Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration or SOAR, is spending $2 million from an anonymous donor to buy more than 5 million oysters in New England, the Mid-Atlantic and Washington state to restore shellfish reefs at 20 locations. The Nature Conservancy is coordinating its efforts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture, which offered similar but smaller programs in several states.
The SOAR program was launched in October with a goal of helping more than 100 oyster farmers, many who lost as much as 90% of their business during the pandemic. Their bigger oysters – known as Uglies because they’re too large for the traditional raw bar market – were piling up on farms due to a lack of demand, and the growing surplus was causing prices to crater.
Farmers needed to find a way to offload the oysters – and the program was made to order. It paid an industry – negotiated price of about 20% below prepandemic prices. “What had started off as a great year for oysters going out to the restaurants just immediately stopped once the restaurants closed,” said Brian Gennaco, owner of the Dover, New Hampshirebased Virgin Oyster Company, which has sold oysters to the program and was among oyster farmers placing

them in the Great Bay.
“We were on the farm looking around saying what are we going to do,” he said.
The Nature Conservancy saw an opportunity to jump-start long-running efforts to rebuild oyster reefs, which the group says have declined an estimated 85% globally due to pollution, overharvesting, development and the emergence of several deadly pathogens. Oyster reefs provide habitat for fish and other wildlife as well as bolster shoreline protection.
“It’s the major silver lining that comes out of the global pandemic for oysters,” said Alix Laferriere, the marine director for the conservancy in New Hampshire.
“The growers get money during a global pandemic and we can use their oysters for conservation,” she said. “Great Bay used to be covered in oyster reefs. And because of historical overharvesting, disease and environmental stressors, a lot of those oyster reefs are gone. We need to do oyster restoration to replace those ecosystem services that are lost.”
An oyster ready for retail sale, right, is seen next to a large adult oyster.