The new River Oyster Highway has turned a dead zone into a fishing hotspot

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the New River Oyster Highway started as an innovative way to clean seawater along the central North Carolina coast, but has grown into a sea trout and rockfish fishing mecca. Located just south of the fabled Outer Banks region, the New River had been so horribly polluted that people didn’t fish or swim in it. It was a barren, dead area. In fact, in the mid-1990s, a huge dumping of waste from a commercial hog operation did not noticeably degrade the New River because it was already devoid of life. But that sad story took a happy turn with the reintroduction of live oyster reefs, which was the brainchild of marine biologist Pat Donovan-Brandenburg, stormwater manager for Jacksonville, North Carolina.

“She had the idea that the only way to overhaul the New River was to stock it with millions of fresh, live oysters,” says Rocky Carter, president of the Coastal Conservation Association. (VAC) from North Carolina. “Oysters are a natural water purifier and they provide prime habitat for many inshore saltwater fish.”

Funding for the initial project came from private donors, Duke Energy and other drinking water and habitat groups. Several million live oysters from commercial farms were purchased and delivered by barge to six selected sites. Volunteers sank the oyster clusters in water four to five feet deep. A first phase of six reefs was completed in the spring of 2019. Each is about the size of a football field and they are spaced about a quarter mile apart. Six more reefs are nearing completion and more reefs are planned. Other coastal Carolina rivers could also receive reefs to improve water quality and fishing.

“The sites were carefully chosen so that when the oysters had spat or young, they would drift and flow to nearby oyster reefs to continue the rejuvenation of the coastal habitat we were creating. “, says Carter, who was one of the reef building volunteers.

Carter says the reefs have about a foot of water above them, and while fishing straight for oysters can be difficult due to line breaks, fishing for sea trout and red drum in the neighboring areas can be exceptional. Carter fishes the reef areas and has caught trout up to 4 pounds, and even larger rockfish.

“I know some really good trout have been caught around the New River Oyster Highway, including 6-8 pound fish,” Carter says.

The New River Oyster Highway is monitored by state marine biologists and University of North Carolina marine biology staff who, at least so far, are happy with the project. It is wide open to anglers and is well marked with signs indicating the location of the reefs. Oysters on the reefs are protected, however, no harvesting is allowed.

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