It was one of those creative solutions to a pandemic-driven problem: the Bay aquaculture industry ended up with a overgrown oysters, since restaurant demand fell sharply due to COVID-19 closures.
So those overgrown oysters, no longer fit for eating, were bought from oyster farmers and replanted on sanctuary reefs in Eastern Bay and the Nanticoke and St. Marys rivers. Now, the Nature Conservancy has announced a big milestone in the program known as “SOAR” (Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration). More than 1.25 million oysters have been planted since the winter of 2020.
The national program is a partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts, supported by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, University of Maryland Extension, and Oyster Recovery Partnership. The program bought excess oyster stock from 26 Maryland farms—easing their financial burden and helping the oyster population at the same time.
“Not only did the SOAR program give us a much needed cash infusion, just as importantly it freed up space and equipment for the next generation of oysters,” said Choptank Oyster Company General Manager Kevin McClarren. “We depend on sales to make room on the lease and COVID-19 put a stop to that. In the near future, continuing the program will help clear up a glut of oysters on the market. We’ll have two years of production to contend with driving prices down.”
The Nature Conservancy believes SOAR could inspire a growing market for aquaculture businesses to supply oysters to restoration efforts. “We hope this program can serve as a model for a new market for growers to continue selling their product while also supporting Bay restoration efforts,” said Tim Purinton, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy in Maryland and D.C.
Thanks to the Maryland oyster purchases, 17 acres of oyster reefs were enhanced at three different sanctuary locations. The program also operates elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic, along with New England and Washington state. So far the SOAR program has purchased more than 3.5 million oysters nationwide.
-Meg Walburn Viviano