WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — Kneeling in 6 inches of muddy water in Dick's Bay behind Masonboro Island, Ted Wilgis hoisted a large clump of Eastern oysters in one rubber-gloved hand.
"To me, this is fantastic," he said. "This is very exciting."
As a coastal education coordinator for the N.C. Coastal Federation, Wilgis is accustomed to oyster sightings. But seeing them healthy and thriving in Dick's Bay is still a relatively new experience.
Seven of the eight reefs sprinkled throughout the shallow bay were created four years ago by the federation in conjunction with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, and at the time, there was no guarantee that the oysters would take to the new beds.
"That's why you can't grow oysters in an aquarium," Wilgis said. "They're picky."
The bay is one part of a large-scale, $6 million oyster-habitat restoration and rehabilitation project. Funded entirely by grant money from organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Restore America's Estuaries, the project encompasses 22 sites spanning 90 acres up and down the coast.
The goal, Wilgis said, is to benefit the water environment as a whole by providing more places for the filter-feeding oysters to grow.
"Oysters supply a lot of what we call 'ecosystem services,'" he said. "Oyster reefs provide fish habitat. Oysters also are an important fishery ... and they also can affect water quality.
"Fish habitat, food, filtration, those are all important things oysters do."
To select suitable sites for the project, federation biologists work with researchers from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, shellfish growers and harvesters, and Marine Fisheries officials.
After choosing a specific location, researchers spray oyster shell into the water, either adding to existing reefs or creating new piles. Typically, spraying occurs in the spring, though reefs have also been built later in the year.
"Oyster larvae are floating around in the spring, summer and fall, and they eventually sink down and attach to something — preferably another oyster shell," Wilgis said. "To build reefs here, you spread shell."
Researchers then check on the new reefs several times per year, monitoring the oysters' growth and the population levels of different sea life along the oyster bed. That data is compared to samples taken from "reference reefs" — oyster beds that existed in each site before the restoration project began.
To sample the oysters on one of the reefs in Dick's Bay, Wilgis donned a pair of blue rubber gloves and carefully pulled large chunks of oyster shell from the ground. The samples were placed on a sieve tray, where Wilgis quickly rinsed them with water, examined their size and noted any sea critters among the shells. (Two tiny mud crabs, a whole lot of mud snails.)
Before returning the samples to the muck, Wilgis held out a hefty, jagged clump of different-sized oyster shells.
"We're seeing a lot of different ages, which is good - not just big, fat adult oysters that are not reproducing."
For the most part, population numbers from Dick's Bay have been promising. According to monitoring data, the number of oysters on all but one of the newly-created reefs is equal to or greater than those in the reference reef - an outcome that's evident in the inlet as the tide rolls out to reveal hundreds of brown, rocky oyster shells.
"When we laid the shell, it looked like a moonscape compared to this," Wilgis said, surveying the craggy landscape. "We're very excited."