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Pollution, disease and over-harvesting have destroyed oyster beds along the Atlantic Seaboard. It's been a downhill slide for a hundred years. In North Carolina, an effort to restore the shellfish has hit a snag.
Megan Williams of member station WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina has this story.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: It's early morning at a small dock in Carteret County. A front-end loader pulls massive scoops of oyster shells from a large mound and pours the smelly cargo onto a small barge.
(Soundbite of loader pouring oysters)
Mr. STEPHEN TAYLOR (State Biologist, North Carolina): And so we're going to plant these as far as a sanctuary. So this will be on a polluted area.
WILLIAMS: North Carolina State biologist Stephen Taylor really is planting oyster shells to grow new oysters. Baby oysters, also called spat, can only survive by anchoring themselves to something hard.
(Soundbite of loader pouring oysters)
Mr. TAYLOR: It's got all these little nooks and crannies and then the spat, it adheres to that a lot better. It's more conducive as far as an oyster shell than anything else like rocks or concrete or stuff like that.
WILLIAMS: Oysters are a vital part of the marine ecosystem. They clean the water and provide habitat for other animals. So many coastal states try to help them out by dumping all the shells they can back into the water. But it takes a lot of material to make a viable reef. And getting your hands on oyster shells isn't easy.
Ms. SABRINA VARNUM (Department of Marine Fisheries, North Carolina): We're not the only ones that are competing to buy these shells and our funds our limited so we only have so much that we can put towards the purchase.
WILLIAMS: Sabrina Varnum works for North Carolina's Department of Marine Fisheries. The state spends about half a million dollars a year to buy oyster shells, but Varnum says that's not enough to counter growing demand from landscapers. Mike Tarter(ph) runs a molten stone store near the coast and says the shells give a regional feel.
Mr. MIKE TARTER (Molten Stone Store Owner): People that purchase oysters shells use them because they're very beachy and go nice in their landscaping down by the water.
WILLIAMS: Up and down the Eastern Seaboard, people are moving near the water. In North Carolina, the coastal population has grown by at least seven percent this decade. Homeowners with a driveway to pave or a couple of palm trees to mulch pay $70 a cubic yard for shells. But landscapers worry the lucrative sales could end. Maryland and Virginia already prohibit selling oyster shells. And this past year, North Carolina banned them from state beautification projects. Marine Fisheries head Louis Daniel says he's even trying to convince the landscapers to stop selling shells.
Dr. LOUIS DANIEL (Director, Marine Fisheries, North Carolina): I mean, I think we certainly have to make that effort, but we also don't want to tell people how to run their businesses either. But we do need to make them aware.
WILLIAMS: North Carolina officials are trying to get the public involved. They've set up plastic recycling cans along the coast at restaurants and facilities. For Louis Daniel, one look inside the bin is the best proof the program needs help.
Dr. DANIEL: We were finding the tags, the bushel tags, in the oyster shells and they were all from Texas, in the Apalachicola Bay, Florida and places like that.
WILLIAMS: Daniel's hope is simple. If he can't get enough shells for his artificial reefs, one day the tags in those buckets could come from a lot closer to home.
For NPR News, I'm Megan Williams in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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