Multimillion-Dollar Shellfish Economy Depends on Research Reserve Data

The Takeaway: By monitoring oxygen, eelgrass health, and other marsh variables, the data system supports shellfish habitat and commercial yields.

U.S. estuaries are the lifeblood of commercial shellfishing. Total fish catch in estuaries contributes $4.3 billion annually to the national economy, and estuaries are nurseries to more than 75 percent of all the fish and shellfish harvested. Data from the National Estuarine Research Reserve System’s environmental monitoring program keeps shellfish businesses informed about conditions and supports product safety. Examples are provided below.

  • The West Coast reserves—California’s San Francisco Bay and Elkhorn Slough, Oregon’s South Slough, and Washington State’s Padilla Bay—provide the region’s $270 million annual commercial shellfish industry with critical data about marsh health, including oxygen and nitrogen levels, eelgrass health, turbidity, restoration, and other marsh variables.
  • In Massachusetts, the Waquoit Bay Reserve’s water-temperature data are routinely used by the state’s shellfish aquaculture industry, an economic powerhouse that in 2013 generated more than $25 million in profits and paid out nearly $12 million in wages.
  • The Apalachicola (Florida), ACE Basin (South Carolina), and North Inlet-Winyah Bay (South Carolina) reserves collect rainfall, salinity, and temperature data critical to the commercial blue crab industry, which in Florida alone carried a dockside value of over $12 million in 2015.
  • In North Carolina, the commercial oyster harvests garner $4.5 million in annual profits. Harmful bacteria have caused repeated shellfish farm closures, so the North Carolina Reserve and University of North Carolina are developing a tool to help shellfish aquaculture firms make more-informed siting decisions.
  • In Alaska, the Kachemak Bay Reserve supplies real-time temperature, oxygen, acidification, and toxin-related data used by commercial oyster farms and state officials. Alaska’s seafood industry employs more people than any other private industry in the state, and fishermen in this North Pacific region made $238 million in 2014 from crab alone.
  • In South Carolina, data from the ACE Basin Reserve aids the state’s shrimp industry—which in 2015 netted more than two million pounds with a dockside value of over $8 million—by predicting areas of shrimp abundance and sending out alerts when black-gill disease is found. (2017)

More Information: System-Wide Monitoring Program

Fast Fact: Did you know that the nation’s seafood industry supports approximately 1.2 million jobs every year? For more statistics related to this story, check out Aquaculture and Research Reserves.