Learn more about North Carolina's Oyster Sanctuary Program

North Carolina has one of the most active shellfish restoration efforts in the country. One of the largest programs in this effort is the Oyster Sanctuary Program. An oyster sanctuary is an area where the harvest of oysters is prohibited. These areas are protected to encourage the growth of large, healthy oyster populations that can act as a brood stock for the rest of North Carolina's coastal waters. Each oyster produces millions of eggs annually that are carried by currents and tides to surrounding areas. By developing and protecting a brood stock, the availability of robust native oysters in adjacent waters increases. In these areas, the Division of Marine Fisheries deploys material to build reefs and encourage baby oysters to settle and grow.

In addition to attracting native oyster larvae, these reefs also act as habitat for clams, small and juvenile finfish, crabs and shrimp, which in turn attract larger fish. While the sanctuaries are closed to oyster fishing they are open to hook-and-line anglers, making oyster sanctuaries popular and productive sportfishing spots. Through continued association with various academic institutions, state and federal agencies and collaboration with commercial fishermen, the program continues to develop more refined techniques for siting, building and monitoring oyster sanctuaries.

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Within sanctuary boundaries, material is deployed using a grid array of mounds, piles and pre-fabricated oyster collecting units. This design scheme is engineered to provide quality surface area, vertical relief and complexity. Complexity includes characteristics like profile, variations in bottom contour, refuge availability and surface area for stationary marine plants and invertebrates — all requirements for successful reefs. To create this habitat, reefs are constructed using a variety of suitable material for oyster settlement, survival and growth. These materials include:

  • Natural oyster and clam shell
  • Class B rip-rap marl
  • Reef Balls™
  • Concrete pipes
  • Recycled crushed concrete
  • Various types of mined rock

Because bottom disturbing gear is prohibited on sanctuaries, the Division of Marine Fisheries seeks input on the best area to locate a site to minimize interactions with trawls, while maximizing the benefits of the site to oystermen and recreational fishermen.

GPS Coordinates and details for each oyster sanctuary are available in the interactive Artificial Reef Guide. You may also request a weather resistant hardcopy at your nearest NCDMF office, or download and print a copy of the reef guide at home.

View the interactive reef guide map

University research and continual monitoring by the Division of Marine Fisheries has found the reef network is extremely successful as a source of oyster larvae to the overall Pamlico Sound population. New sanctuary sites, will help support the current stock and likely improve our oyster population in the long term. A more abundant oyster population directly translates to improved water quality and health for the ecosystem, as well as more oysters available for commercial harvest.

Oyster sanctuaries are designed and built as a way to give back to North Carolinians. Therefore, the Division of Marine Fisheries seeks public input on the best area to locate a site to minimize interactions with trawls, while maximizing the benefits of the site to oystermen and recreational fishermen. Public meetings are held in the early planning stages of each proposed reef so that comments from the community can be incorporated into reef siting and design.