UNC Clean Tech Summit: Restoring the Health of the North Carolina Oyster While Creating Jobs

The message to University of North Carolina students—an appropriate one for a conference on sustainability—was as clear as parts of the state's Pamlico Sound. Clean technology is a hot sector, and if you can find your way in, the energy world is your oyster.

The fourth annual UNC Clean Tech Summit kicked off with bullish talk on the future of sustainable, renewable energy from North Carolina's new governor, and a promise from organizers for stimulating conversation over the two-day event.

Leaders from the UNC Chapel Hill community encouraged the summit's 1,000 participants to share ideas and to network. UNC Chancellor Carol L. Folt noted that more than 30 percent of summit attendees this year would be students, alongside business leaders and representatives from the public sector and nonprofits. Sustainable solutions aren't just good for the environment, but they're also good business, Folt said: "Green is green."

Summit organizers broke individual sessions into four thematic tracks: Innovation, Clean Energy, Food, and Water and Energy.

Emily Solomonson, a freshman environmental science major interested in ecology, said she was using the summit to explore what specific careers she might be interested in. She said her father, a businessman, had encouraged her to do some networking at the event.

Natalie Schuster and Rachel Tevis, both juniors and both also environmental science majors, had several tasks to complete—for class and for career—at the summit. Schuster had participated a day earlier in a pre-summit event called Smart Cities Day, and was attending a mentoring program that matched her with a sustainability professional over the two-day summit.

Many of the panelists came from local businesses that make up North Carolina's sustainability sector. David DiLoreto runs a water buffalo dairy farm in Rowan County called Fading D. DiLoreto, who came to the summit to participate in a session in the food track about agricultural innovation and rural development, said he hoped to promote "small-farm issues" while at the summit.

"There's a lot of interest in what we're doing," he said. "But we have to get the message across to younger people that there's opportunity in small farms, that it's still a viable life for them. They can make a living at it, but if we don't get that message across now we will have lost this momentum."

Momentum, in terms of popularity among human eaters, is something that North Carolina oysters gained rapidly 150 years ago.

In the middle of the 19th century, oyster farming in North Carolina was a local activity. Steamboats and railroad construction prompted more commercial efforts, and in 1858, the state's General Assembly passed a law that allowed private oyster cultivation in public waters.

Within 25 years, North Carolina oystermen were harvesting oyster beds to their production limit, sending oysters by the boxcar-full to New York and San Francisco, according to the state's Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF). Much like today, Americans considered oysters a delicacy and thought of them as an aphrodisiac.

By 1890, Maryland and Virginia had depleted natural oyster beds in the Chesapeake Bay, and Baltimore canneries ventured south to open oyster houses, introducing modern harvesting methods in North Carolina. In 1902, oyster landings (or amount harvested) reached 806,363 bushels, the highest level on record, according to the DMF. By 1994, oyster harvests had decreased by 96 percent, to a low of 35,000 bushels.

The good news is that restoration efforts since the beginning of the 21st century have worked. According to the North Carolina Coastal Federation, an umbrella group of organizations that promotes oyster restoration, education, science, mariculture and sustainable harvest efforts in the state, the 2015 harvest was 119,298 bushels, a 240 percent gain over 20 years, though still about 86 percent off from the high harvests of a century earlier.

The North Carolina DMF says that oysters today are vulnerable to overharvest for reasons that range from habitat disturbance to pollution to biological and environmental stressors. In a food track session called "Oyster Restoration as an Economic Development Tool," panelists spoke about how bringing health back to oysters and the oyster harvesting industry in North Carolina could happen at the same time.

Erin Fleckenstein, a coastal scientist and the manager of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, said the group's goal is to design an economic development strategy "that supports the economy and heritage of the coast." To that end, the group publishes the state's "Oyster Blueprint," which sets goals and action steps to accomplish oyster health and measures that are monitored via "State of the Oyster" progress reports.

Brian Boutin, director of the North Carolina chapter of The Nature Conservancy, discussed "benefit stacking," the idea that doing the right thing ecologically can, and should, also benefit local economies.

Oysters need help, but they're also doing their part. A single adult oyster filters 50 gallons of water each day, Fleckenstein said, filtering a lot of algae, which gives the water around oyster reefs a clarity that help other aquatic life like blue crabs and finfish. But oysters also need quality water to thrive, so scientists are working the land, trying to limit storm runoff to protect oyster beds near the shore line.

Niels Lindquist, a professor at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences who researches oyster ecology and restoration, and David "Clammerhead" Cessna, a seventh-generation commercial shellfish harvester from Carteret County, founded the Sandbar Oyster Company. Its motto is "Shellfishly Motivated," and its logo is a bird called an oyster catcher.

That's also the name of Sandbar Oyster Company's invention, a temporary, man-made oyster bed called a substrate that allows oysters to cluster upward, in groups, rather than across a large mud flat. Because their oysters don't grow in the traditional flat, razor shape, the resulting meat is rounder and more plump. They've also begun to market a kind of oyster, called green gill, that diners have ignored for decades. Cessna said chefs around the country are now starting to realize what Carolina locals have known all along—green gills taste good.

"It's been my dream since I was little to make the green gill popular," Cessna said. "The oyster is my world."