A 'lifesaver': Organization purchases oysters to help farmers during pandemic

NBC's Harry Smith reported on the program, operated by The Nature Conservancy.
Oysters can filter 50 gallons of water per day.
Oysters can filter 50 gallons of water per day. NBC News

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Pew Charitable Trusts are taking steps to support oyster farmers and the environment during the coronavirus pandemic.

The two organizations recently announced an initiative, Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR) that is buying $2 million worth of oysters from oyster farms along the East Coast. These farms typically sell 90% of the oysters they produce to restaurants, but the COVID-19 pandemic has cut those sales. Purchasing the oysters will not only put money in farmers' pockets, but SOAR intends to spread the oysters on 'restoration reefs' up and down the coast in an effort to restore the naturally occurring reefs that have been destroyed over the past several decades.

NBC News correspondent Harry Smith spoke to some of the oyster farmers who were involved in the initiative.

"Last year was a really good year. And this year, we were set up to double what we did last year in terms of oyster sales," said Brian Janacko, who operates a farm in New Hampshire with two employees. To make some money, he turned to selling retail, but said that he was only making about 50% of the money he was earning when selling to restaurants.

"Can you make a living at 50%?" asked Smith.

"Not with having two employees, no," Janacko said.

Harry Smith and Laura Brown at her oyster farm. NBC News

Laura Brown, who also operates an oyster farm in New Hampshire, said she was glad to be approached by TNC.

"There's a lot of oysters and if you can't sell them fast enough, they get too big, because you can't just stop your farm," she said. "They're growing. So knowing that (TNC was) going to buy them was a huge lifesaver — huge."

According to the TNC, 85% of naturally occurring reefs on the East Coast have been wiped out since the 1980s, primarily due to disease and pollution. In addition to restoring those structures, oysters have a major benefit: They can clean polluted water, filtering 50 gallons a day, and they attract other species to an area.

"They're just nature's little pumps," Brown said. "They help filter the water out so that the sunlight can come through and the water is clear so that any habitat that needs to form can form."

In total, TNC is purchasing 5 million oysters, which will then be transplanted to at least 20 restoration sites in seven states.

"We're going to deploy those oysters ... and rebuild at least 27 acres of oyster reefs," said Rob Jones, the global lead for TNC's aquaculture program. "And they can provide habitat and benefits for the environment — and make a healthier ocean."

It's also possible for viewers at home to support oyster farmers. For example, at OysterRater.com, you can purchase these protein-packed treats from farmers all over the world, and then track and rate the ones you tried. You can also find national purveyors through 'In a Half Shell's' database of oyster farmers.