Story by Jason Frye
Photography By Keith Ketchum

St. James Plantation’s ongoing oyster reef program not only cleans the waterways but also serves as a research sanctuary and teaches local students about the importance of their local environment.

For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.

—John Steinbeck, The Pearl

Under the sweltering summer sun, they don heavy work gloves and reach out for handfuls of sharp, bone-white oyster shells, placing them in buckets and tins and bags. They sweat, their salt dripping onto a handful of shells as if preparing them for the coming baptism. The volunteers — two-dozen active retirees from St. James Plantation near Southport and an equal number of high school students and college interns — make one mound of oyster shells into what felt like hundreds of buckets and bins, all for the sake of having one thing and wanting something more.

What they have is a beautiful waterway and marsh creeks twisting through the neighborhoods and golf courses of St. James. What they want is a better environment, one rich with life: fish and oysters, crabs and birds, even fishermen. To get that, this army of volunteers has, for the last three years, built reefs of oyster shells.

“One oyster cleans between 30 and 50 gallons of water a day,” says Taylor Ryan, St. James resident and organizer of the town’s ongoing oyster shell recycling program. “That’s a big impact for such a small creature. And maybe it’s a little selfish motivation; I live on the Intracoastal [Waterway] and see the water and wildlife every day, but I thought that if one oyster can have an impact, so can one man.”

Ryan retired to St. James in 2001 after a career with IBM and a brief stint as a software consultant. He was glad to leave the working world and get back to one of his first loves: the outdoors. Always an outdoorsman, he collected turtles as a kid; ended up only a few merit badges short of his Eagle Scout award from the Boy Scouts; has spent thousands of hours in, on and around the water; and, of course, loves to eat oysters.

After attending a talk on oysters, their environmental benefits and artificial reef building given by the North Carolina Coastal Federation, UNCW and the Division of Marine Fisheries’ Oyster Recycling Program, Ryan grew to love oysters for more than just dinner. He’d found a way to get involved in his community, improve his environment and spend time on the water. He decided to build an oyster reef.

The way oyster reefs work is this: cleaned and prepared oyster shells are introduced into the marine environment in one of two ways, in piles and mounds, or in heavy, raft-like bales. Oyster larvae float around and find their way to the mounds or bales of shells. They attach themselves and begin their life cycle, growing from larvae to spat to adult. As they mature, ideally, the reef continues to grow as they and other oysters, release more larvae and improve the quality of the water where they live.

Inspired by the presentation, Ryan approached then mayor of St. James Shelly Lesher seeking funding to build a small reef of his own.

“When I talked to Shelly, I explained the project and the ideas behind it and then asked if there was room in the budget for some oyster shells,” says Ryan. “I was surprised when she said yes and amazed at how much the town was able to give me for the project. We ended up ordering 21 yards of oyster shells with the money from St. James.”

By then he’d recruited a handful friends into the project and they secured use of a Bobcat, bought the mesh and closures to make the reef bags they needed and sent out a call for volunteers.

“The response was overwhelming,” he says. “We had 90 people show up to help us bag these oysters. St. James is a community full of volunteers, and with our little army we were ready to sink our reefs in no time.”

“No time” is a relative term. With 21 yards of oysters — that’s approximately five small dump trucks full — to bag up, the job could have dragged on for a long time, but the 90 volunteers had the task completed in three hours. The next day, they transported their bags to St. James’ Waterway Park, where they placed them in the Intracoastal Waterway with the hopes that they’d soon be rife with oyster larvae.

“Our volunteers absolutely busted their butts to get the first project done,” says Ryan. “We knew we were all working hard, but we didn’t have anything to measure ourselves against until I talked to the N.C. Coastal Federation and told them what we’d done. They told me that it took them three months to bag up the same yardage of oyster shells.”

The St. James project may have had an unfair advantage over the Coastal Federation, though, as a motivated army of volunteers can do a lot more work than a handful of employees with dozens of other job concerns pulling them away from oyster shell bagging. Still, the feat was impressive. But not as impressive as the number of larvae Ryan reports had attached themselves to the reefs in only eight weeks.

“Six hundred and fifty thousand,” he says. “We estimate that eight weeks after installing the reef, six hundred and fifty thousand new oysters had attached themselves. If they all grew to maturity, that would be an incredible amount of water filtered every day.”

Of course, they don’t all reach maturity, and if they do, they don’t all live long oyster lives. That’s why Ryan and his volunteer crew make this an annual event. And it’s why they sought help from UNCW’s Marine Sciences students and professors as well as the Coastal Federation.

“Very quickly this thing grew from one idea to a real community project,” Ryan says. “All sorts of people, like Dick Lefevbre, former chairman of New York’s Adirondack Park agency, got involved, and we started making great strides in improving our environment and water quality for years to come.”

That first reef was built in 2006. Since then they’ve built more reefs, but more recently they’ve not been bagged, just dumped from buckets and pails to create a more free-form reef. These days, to sink bagged oyster shell reefs you need to gather permits from and jump through the hoops of the Coastal Area Management Act, N.C. Coastal Resources and other sundry organizations. It’s simply easier to collect the shells, dump the shells and get the oyster population growing. In the meantime, Ryan is working on securing the necessary permits for bagged reefs.

Since 2007 the St. James volunteers have been augmented by college students and high school scientists and environmentalists participating in UNCW’s Ocean 17 Marine Science Camp. These teens join the St. James group in sorting shells and creating reefs, all while learning about the importance of oysters, the very knowledge that got Ryan started in the first place.

In 2013 around 50 of St. James’ and Ocean 17’s finest were joined by the Southport Boys and Girls Club to build reefs. In a couple of days in mid-July, they reintroduced 125 bushels of oyster shells (almost as much as that first 21-yard project) into the Intracoastal Waterway and Beaver Dam Creek, a major estuary crossing St. James, opening into a spectacular marsh and emptying into the Intracoastal.

Today the program is doing more than just cleaning up the water and pulling volunteers out of the house, it’s serving as a research sanctuary for the UNCW Center for Marine Sciences and it’s teaching college students, high school students and area kids about the importance of their local environment. And it’s grown to include not only the oyster shell program, but also the replanting of valuable marsh grasses, helping to reduce marsh erosion.

Ryan’s working on expanding the project even further. He wants to see St. James step up and augment their volume of shells by installing a pair of oyster shell recycling bins in the town’s recycling center. This would allow homeowners and restaurants to give back to the waters by throwing their old shells into a pile, a simple solution with a profound impact.

“I think about what we’ve done, and it’s big,” Ryan says. “We’re helping clean up our waterways and having fun doing it. We’re giving all sorts of animal species a better food source and better place to live. And I know it’s working. How do I know? Every day I look out at the end of my dock and I see fishermen there, casting around the reef we put there and the shell piles I’ve added on my own. They don’t stop at many other docks, and that tells me mine is full of fish, full of life, and that makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something.”