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Wellfleet Bay Oyster Reef Habitat Restoration Project

Created: 2/07/2010 - Updated: 5/09/2019

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The Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, one of Mass Audubon’s protected areas in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, has initiated an oyster reef habitat restoration project on the intertidal flats of Lieutenant Island. This project was created to boost local populations of the wild American oyster (Crassostrea virginica) and to restore oyster reef habitat and the ecological services it provides. This last piece is an important factor in protecting communities against increased storm surges and sea level rise that is expected with climate change in Massachusetts.


The Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, with support from The Nature Conservancy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is establishing the first oyster reef habitat restoration project in Massachusetts on the intertidal flats of Lieutenant Island. Oyster reefs are three dimensional habitats comprised of living and dead oysters, and serve multiple ecological functions; they can improve water quality by filtering and removing nutrients, suspended sediments, and chemical contaminants, create habitat for other species (especially juvenile fish and crabs), and reduce bank erosion. This habitat type is among the most endangered in the ocean; approximately 85% of oyster reef habitat has been lost around the world. In Wellfleet Bay, oyster reefs have essentially disappeared, primarily as a result of pollution, overfishing, and disease. The Sanctuary is seeking to restore these reefs because they serve as natural coastal buffers that help to protect shorelines and keep coastal marshes intact by helping to break down wave energy before it reaches the shoreline, an especially important service with the likely increases in storm surges and sea level rise expected with climate change. The aims of this project are therefore two-fold: 1) to boost wild American oyster populations and 2) to restore oyster reef habitat and the ecological services it provides to Wellfleet Bay.


The project, partially funded through a grant from NOAA’s Community-based Restoration Program and private donations, is in its initial phases. Project leaders are experimenting with different types of structures upon which oyster can seed and build a foundation over two acres of intertidal flats. Three different techniques are being tested – oyster blocks, reef balls, and shell cultch – and monitoring is underway and ongoing to measure oyster population dynamics, oyster disease, and the use of the area by birds, invertebrates, and fish. Monitoring of the reefs includes a certain amount of citizen science; stakeholders and volunteers play a major role in these efforts. In addition, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Cape Cod Extension program for Barnstable County, New England Aquarium, and Town of Wellfleet provide project assistance.

Outcomes and Conclusions

The project will be considered a “success” when a certain density of oysters is reached across the area and growing substrates no longer need to be added to sustain the reef. Project leaders hope that the reef will continue to grow and encourage a diverse habitat.


Information gathered from interviews and online resources. Last updated on 2/7/10.


Gregg, R. M. (2010). Wellfleet Bay Oyster Reef Habitat Restoration Project [Case study on a project of the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: (Last updated February 2010)

Project Contacts

The Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is part of a network of protected areas under the purview of Mass Audubon. The Sanctuary, located on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, is 1,100 acres of salt marsh, sandy beach, pine woodland, freshwater pond, and rare heathland.


Scale of Project: 
Community / Local
Sector Addressed: 
Conservation / Restoration
Target Climate Changes and Impacts: 
Sea level rise
Storms or extreme weather events
Climate Type: 
Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy: 
Natural Resource Management / Conservation
Incorporate climate-smart guidelines into restoration
Incorporate future conditions into natural resources planning and policies
Taxonomic Focus: 
Other Invertebrates
Effort Stage: 
In progress

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