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Mark Hooper and Rick Luettich. Photo by Dan Sears.

Partnership of UNC researchers and fishermen helps preserve a coastal way of life

Commercial fisherman Mark Hooper of Smyrna in Carteret County watched as his family’s seagoing lifestyle slowly slipped away. “The seafood industry in this county has evaporated before our very eyes,” he said. Competition from foreign sources and water quality issues were part of the problem. Hooper didn’t see how he could continue to make his living trawling the seas with his faithful canine companion, Rusty.

In 1985, he began to experiment with aquaculture – the cultivation of fish, shellfish and aquatic plants – with the help of UNC professor and researcher Charles “Pete” Peterson of the Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City. Hooper and Peterson are partners in research about growing shellfish along the North Carolina coast. Hooper has the practical experience and Peterson has the scientific expertise.

“Pete Peterson at UNC has looked at scallops, clams and oysters from a pure scientific point of view and a practical point of view,” Hooper said. Peterson's ability to take his scientific knowledge and apply it to real world problems really makes a difference in the aquaculture industry.

They started out with simple experiments about growing clams, experiments that looked at ways to make aquaculture more economically viable. “Each question that we ask, we move further toward doing it better, growing things quickly, more successfully and ideally with less expense,” he said.

But the work of UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences extends beyond the best method for growing clams. On its 6.5 acres of waterfront property on Bogue Sound, the Institute is home to eight UNC faculty and approximately 50 support staff and graduate students who study microbial and plankton ecology, water quality, wetlands, shellfish and fisheries issues, marine chemistry, coastal geology and coastal hazards. In addition each fall the Institute of Marine Sciences serves as a field site for the UNC Institute of the Environment and in this capacity hosts a “semester at the coast” for undergraduates interested in hands-on learning in the marine environment.

One of the areas Peterson and his researchers have been examining lately is the impact of the loss of oysters on the estuary environment. One of the major causes of the decline in water quality and fish nursery habitats in the world’s estuaries can be traced to loss of filtration and of reef habitat historically provided by oysters, so Peterson’s group has been working to restore oysters to the estuaries in various ways and to study the results of each method. Their results will influence not only environmental policies and practices in the area but also the way local fishermen harvest oysters in the future.

The bottom line is that this collaboration of UNC researchers and local fishermen has increased the amount of seafood being harvested and the amount of money in fishermen’s pockets. The economic impact of marine sciences in Carteret County is $127 million annually, according to a recent study by UNC’s Office of Economic Development, making it responsible for approximately 10 percent of the jobs and 8 percent of the economy in the county. The institute contributes roughly 5 percent to this total.

But most important, the partnership is allowing a time-honored coastal tradition to survive in the modern economy. “I think these partnerships between the scientists and the fishermen are critical for sustaining the long-term viability of fisheries in coastal North Carolina,” said Rick Luettich, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences.

So does Hooper, who credits his aquaculture success for keeping him in business. Hooper Family Seafood balances its business between harvesting softshell crabs in the spring and raising clams in the summer. “I’ve invested in aquaculture small-scale as a way to maintain a lifestyle as a fisherman,” Hooper said.

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