Sandbar Oyster Co.

Dr. Niels Lindquist, co-founder of Sandbar Oyster Co. and researcher with UNC Institute of Marine Science, checks out a stretch of oyster catcher material placed along the shoreline at the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores to create a living shoreline. (Elise Clouser photo)

PINE KNOLL SHORES — As environmental changes that threaten natural ecosystems mount in coastal communities, two innovative Carteret County men have created a product they hope can be used to create and restore estuarine habitats and help stop shoreline erosion.

Dr. Niels Lindquist, a researcher with the UNC Institute of Marine Science, and David “Clammerhead” Cessna, a lifelong commercial fisherman, are co-founders of Sandbar Oyster Co., which produces a biodegradable, cement-based substrate to grow oysters. The company was formed in 2016, but the partnership between scientist and fisherman began in 2009, when Dr. Lindquist said he was tapped by N.C. Sea Grant to research ways to restore oyster populations in North Carolina.

Dr. Lindquist recruited the help of Mr. Cessna, whose family have been shellfish harvesters and commercial fishermen for generations, to research best methods for growing oysters in a way that can also help protect the natural environment. They received financial backing from various sources, including NC IDEA and UNC, and together with the help of graduate students and researchers, the pair developed a product today known as the “oyster catcher.”

The oyster catcher is a cement-based, biodegradable material that can be molded into various shapes and sizes. Mr. Cessna draws from his experience in construction to help build structures made out of the material that can be placed in shallow waters to begin the oyster reef creation process.

Over the years of developing and testing the product, Dr. Lindquist and Mr. Cessna discovered the material not only encourages attachment of oyster larvae, known as spat, but also can be used to create and restore estuarine habitats, from oyster reefs to saltmarsh meadows.

“We came up with an idea for this new biodegradable hardscape, so a cement-based product, that could be used to create oyster reefs and do other things now that we’re learning about to use it in other ways – protecting salt marsh, creating salt marsh habitat, for example,” Dr. Lindquist said. “So it’s become a pretty versatile material, and we’re getting quite a bit interest in the products.”

The oyster catcher material, for which UNC secured a patent in 2016, has not only proved more effective at growing oysters than traditional oyster sills, but Dr. Lindquist said it is also a superior product for creating living shorelines. He said all Sandbar Oyster Co. has to do is set up the material, in whatever shape and design is deemed best for the specific project, and let nature do most of the work.

“It’s kind of a starter for oyster communities and salt marsh communities,” he said. “If we do our job right, they take over, nature does the heavy lifting and you don’t really see our material after that.”

One of the biggest advantages of Sandbar’s material is that it contains no plastic and can break down entirely. Unlike other popular materials used to create living shorelines, such as mesh bags filled with oyster shells, the oyster catcher material does not persist in the environment.

“We are the anti-plastic people,” Mr. Cessna said.

Sandbar Oyster Co. is working with a number of organizations and private individuals throughout the state and beyond to help set up oyster reefs and create living shorelines. One of the company’s customers is the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, which, through the N.C. Coastal Federation, received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to set up a living shoreline along the shores of the aquarium’s property.

“This project was great for us because we have a couple of different types of shoreline stabilization materials on our shoreline, including the oyster catchers,” N.C. Aquariums conservation research coordinator Carol Price said. “We really liked that one because it doesn’t have any plastics. The aquariums have a big initiative to reduce these plastics, so for us, this was a really good alternative. It biodegrades and you’re left with natural reef.

“So this was good for that reason, but also this gives a site for people investigating different alternatives can come and see different kinds of materials you can use,” she continued.

In April, Dr. Lindquist and Mr. Cessna set up about 185 feet of their oyster catcher material in a design that will encourage salt marsh growth. Several months after it was set up, some marsh grass is just starting to poke through, and some oysters have started attaching.

Dr. Lindquist said the material is versatile enough that customers can customize a living shoreline project to fit their individual needs. He said no two shorelines are exactly the same, so every project is a new challenge.

Dr. Lindquist said there are a number of projects on the horizon for Sandbar Oyster Co., including a possible shoreline stabilization project on Sugarloaf Island in Morehead City. In addition, he said the product is gaining the attention of private homeowners who wish to protect their properties against erosion.

To learn more about Sandbar Oyster Co., visit sandbaroystercompany.com or email Dr. Lindquist at niels@sandbaroystercompany.com.

Contact Elise Clouser at elise@thenewstimes.com; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.

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