by Michaela Abraham on Sept. 23, 2022 | Reprinted from NC Coastwatch

Oysters once were as popular as the fast-food burger is today. Since the late-1880’s, people have collected, consumed, and enjoyed oysters up and down the East Coast.

In North Carolina, the eastern or American oyster (Crassostrea virginica) lives in waters stretching the southern end of the Albemarle Sound to the sounds and estuaries bordering South Carolina. North Carolina is the only state that harbors both deep water reefs in the Pamlico Sound and low-depth reefs in intertidal waters, as well as reefs that run alongside the shorelines of our marshes.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE OYSTERS GONE?

People have harvested wild oysters off the coasts of North America for over 3,000 years.

Around 85% of oyster reefs worldwide have been demolished as a result of overexploitation. North Carolina’s original oyster stocks have now been reduced by approximately 95%, according to the North Carolina Coastal Federation.

Due to historic overharvesting and other environmental stressors, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF) considers the eastern oyster to be a species of concern. Since 2020, 22 million bushels of cultch material — such as oyster shells and limestone marl — have been planted in order to create new oyster habitat, part of a century-long endeavor in the state.

Credit: Justin Kase Conder, © 2021 Justin Kase Conder.

CONSERVING A SPECIES AND BOOSTING AN INDUSTRY

The state’s Oyster Steering Committee is a non-regulatory board comprised of researchers, restoration specialists, coastal managers, permit officers, oyster growers, and educators. The committee has been responsible for leading revisions for the ongoing NC Oyster Blueprint Plan, which has expanded and built upon the state’s Fishery Management Plan for Oysters, the work of the Division of Water Resources’ Basin Planning Branch, and the North Carolina Strategic Plan for Mariculture.

With the expertise of partners like North Carolina Coastal Federation, North Carolina Sea Grant, and federal and state agencies, the Blueprint recommends strategies to ensure that N.C oysters can foster a productive coastal ecosystem and thriving oyster fishery and aquaculture industry.

In addition to the Blueprint, the North Carolina Strategic Plan on Shellfish Mariculture presented recommendations in 2018 to sustainably grow the state’s shellfish mariculture industry by supporting local shellfish growers. This plan set 2030 targets for the shellfish industry that included $100 million in value, $33 million in landings, and generating 1,000 new jobs.

North Carolina’s aquaculture industry also received national recognition by becoming the first state in the southeast to join NOAA’s National Shellfish Initiative. Shellfish farming has the potential to reduce pressures on wild oyster harvests and provide a consistent seafood source. A collaborative North Carolina Sea Grant project determined that in 2019 shellfish landings in the state generated over $27 million and provided 500+ jobs, with more than half of this economic impact coming from farmed oysters.

Restoring and protecting oyster populations — and growing enough oysters to meet market demand — requires thriving businesses, increased environmental stewardship, and awareness of our coastal resources. Not surprisingly, recommendations in the Strategic Plan for Shellfish Mariculture included a “North Carolina Oyster Trail.”

Katherine McGlade, Slash Creek Oyster Farm.

THE NC OYSTER TRAIL

From craft beer to barbeque, culinary and beverage trails feature regional delicacies and provide opportunities for visitors to connect with local food producers. From its launch in 2020, the NC Oyster Trail has covered the state’s entire coast. North Carolina Sea Grant and North Carolina Coastal Federation administer the NC Oyster Trail, in partnership with the NC Shellfish Growers Association, to “provide experiences that help sustain and grow N.C. oysters, resulting in economic, environmental, and social benefits to the state’s seafood industry and coastal communities.”

The Trail includes over 75 members across the state that offer a wide variety of shellfish tourism experiences. Along the Trail, you can find seafood restaurants and markets, shellfish farm tours, recreational and educational activities, and special events highlighting N.C. oysters. “The Oyster Trail has been essential in connecting travelers, foodies, and outdoor adventure lovers to the magic of the North Carolina oyster,” says Jane Harrison, coastal economics specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant and lead coordinator of the Trail.

NCOysterTrail.org displays an interactive map of where to eat local oysters or tour a shellfish farm. There are also several educational programs and volunteer opportunities to learn more about the eastern oyster’s importance to North Carolina’s coastal environment.

Here’s a sampling of just a few of the places to taste and learn more about our state’s unique oysters.

Oysters Carolina offers tours of their Carteret County farm.

TOUR A WORKING SHELLFISH FARM

Do you know where your seafood comes from? Hop on a boat and learn how we grow oysters in North Carolina. Smell that salt breeze and slurp down some of the most sustainable seafood on the planet.

Slash Creek Oyster Farm (Hatteras Island)

Katherine McGlade and husband Spurgeon Stowe’s Slash Creek Oyster Farm provides tours of their operation that are an hour and a half, beginning at the dock at Slash Creek Oyster House. Visitors learn about the equipment and their processes for growing oysters, then take the oyster boat (“The Half Shell”) for a 10-minute ride to their lease to see the different stages of oyster growth.

Roysters NC (Beaufort)

Roysters NC is a family-owned and operated oyster farm in Carteret County’s North River. Visitors can schedule a boat tour to visit a cluster of four shellfish farms in and around North River and Wards Creek, and bring-your-own-kayak tours also are available upon request. These excursions provide opportunities to explore the waters — and what grows in them — between Beaufort and Harkers Island.

Middle Sound Mariculture (Hampstead)

Middle Sound Mariculture grows oysters in Masonboro, Stump, and Topsail Sounds. Known for their salty, buttery, rich “Masonboro Pearls” — named after the farmer’s daughter, Pearl — Middle Sound Mariculture offers farm tours via Epic Excursions NC and sells oysters directly to visitors.

Middle Sound Mariculture, known for its salty, buttery “Masonboro Pearls.”

SAVOR THE COAST’S DISTINCT FLAVORS AT MARKETS AND RESTAURANTS

Our state’s oysters are available at a variety of markets and restaurants on the coast and inland, including these places on the NC Oyster Trail.

Locals Seafood (Durham and Raleigh)

Locals Seafood, a restaurant and fish market in Durham Food Hall and a soon-to-open establishment in east Raleigh, serves North Carolina oysters year-round, alongside a menu of cooked seafood dishes and a full bar. They have several seafood markets throughout the Triangle.

Native Prime Provisions (Cashiers)

Native Prime Provisions occupies the westernmost point on the NC Oyster Trail. They have a nine-seat chef tasting counter where they serve lunch and dinner, and they carry oysters from Sticky Bottom, Slash Creek, and Ocracoke Mariculture.

Seaview Crab Company (locations in the Wilmington area and inland)

Seaview Crab Company Kitchen & Deli’s seafood is fresh, hot, and affordable. Executive chef Brandon Stark prepares dishes with seafood from their market, and customers can order food to go or enjoy it at their outdoor seating area. Nationwide shipping is also available for all their retail products, including fresh seafood.

Oysters Carolina (New Bern)

Oysters Carolina offers farm-to-table, same-day delivery anywhere in North Carolina for free. Their award-winning oysters are consistently rated among the saltiest in the country. Although oyster farming is notoriously demanding, Oysters Carolina eschews mechanical devices; they use arm strength to lift hefty oyster cages. They also offer farm tours at their Carteret County location on request.

Wrightsville Beach Brewery (Wilmington)

Wrightsville Beach Brewery serves N.C. oysters from within 60 miles, whenever possible. They have special wine pairing recommendations based on the dish and the type of oyster. Menu items include po’ boy pizza with sauteed oysters, fried oysters over kimchi-spiced N.C. collards, and fried oyster po’ boys.

A delicacy at Wrightsville Beach Brewery.

Ocracoke Oyster Company (Ocracoke)

Ocracoke Oyster Company serves fresh Ocracoke Island Devil Shoals oysters harvested daily. They offer many varieties of baked and raw oysters, as well as fried, and oyster stout beer is available on tap.

Parley’s Sip & Steam (Washington)

Parley’s Sip & Steam offers a wide variety of prepared oysters: raw, steamed, or their house specialty oysters. Oysters Rockefeller, Parley Den oysters, and No Quarter oysters are just some of the locals’ favorites. Customers can eat their N.C. seafood with live music each weekend, as well as paired spirit tastings and charcuterie boards.

Saltbox Seafood Joint (Durham)

James Beard Award-winning chef Ricky Moore draws inspiration at Saltbox from classic American fish camps and waterside seafood shacks, with an emphasis on N.C. seafood. At his counter-service restaurant, the fish and shellfish options vary daily. A handwritten menu on a chalkboard tells of the day’s offerings.

Where the “oyster stout” flows: Ocracoke Oyster Company.

DISCOVER LOCAL OYSTER LORE AND ADVENTURE

North Carolina oysters are available year-round. Wild oyster season begins October 15, but farmed oysters make it possible to enjoy oysters anytime. Here’s how to support a healthy coast and the livelihoods of our state’s watermen and women.

North Carolina Coastal Federation (Newport, Wanchese, Wrightsville Beach)

North Carolina Coastal Federation is a member-supported nonprofit organization focused on protecting and restoring North Carolina’s coastal waters. Their coastal locations provide opportunities to learn more about their living shoreline, water quality, and oyster restoration efforts, as well as opportunities to volunteer or become a Coastal Federation member.

North Carolina Estuarium (Washington)

The North Carolina Estuarium is an environmental education center located in Washington, a soundside community with a deep maritime heritage. The Estuarium provides extensive information about the importance of our state’s estuarine ecosystems and why we should protect them, including exhibits about the state’s oysters and oyster fishery.

Science by the Sea (Beaufort)

Science by the Sea provides eco-adventures with a choice of three modes of transportation: kayak, stand-up paddleboard, and a flat-bottomed bateau cruise. Tours depart from the historic Beaufort waterfront and visit the four islands in the Rachel Carson Reserve. Visitors can observe diverse habitats and estuarine creatures, including oysters, that dwell in these waters.

North Carolina Estuarium, an environmental education center in Washington.

SHELLEBRATE: NORTH CAROLINA OYSTER WEEK

Join the NC Oyster Trail October 10 to 16 to “shellebrate” the history, culture, economy, and ecology of oysters in our state.

Last year, Governor Roy Cooper officially declared North Carolina Oyster Week in a statewide proclamation.

Eighteen in-person and virtual events for the public provided opportunities to engage with oyster growers and harvesters, seafood restaurants, seafood retail markets, recreational outfitters, coastal conservation and education organizations, and seafood festivals.

Again this year, throughout October, a wide range of different events and programs will continue the shellebration. Visit NCOysterTrail.org for the complete list of festivities, more places to see on the Trail, and other resources. Follow the NC Oyster Trail on Facebook and Instagram.

The NC Oyster Trail

Seafood in Coastwatch

More about seafood from North Carolina Sea Grant

Michaela Abraham is a North Carolina Sea Grant community engaged intern who studies fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology at NC State University.

lead photo credit: Credit: Justin Kase Conder, © 2021 Justin Kase Conder.

by Kimberly Armstrong on August 28, 2022 | Reprinted from The Coastland Times

Original article published by N.C. Cooperative Extension, Dare County Center.

As the saying goes, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” And some might add that bold man must have been awfully hungry too! They might not be pretty, but these humble bivalves have been elevated to gourmet status and are consumed with gusto, paired with an ice-cold beer or a flute of champagne. Whether slurped raw in their own salty elixir, steamed, roasted, fried, or in a stew, they’re a culinary delight for the discerning (and adventurous) palate.

Katherine McGlade loves oysters. In fact, she likes them so much that she left her successful environmental consulting business to pursue oyster farming. Her company is Slash Creek Oysters, which she operates along with her husband, Spurgeon Stowe. “I had studied oysters, so I knew a bit about them,” she says. “And I thought there was a market for them that wasn’t being satisfied.” Add to that the fact that she had grown weary of having a desk job and was looking for a way to work outside.

That is how Katherine finds herself not heading to an office each morning but shoving off from the dock, steering her skiff through the shimmering waters of the Pamlico Sound, dazzled by sparkling sunbeams, in awe of an impossibly blue sky, and filling her lungs with tangy salt air. She reaches her five acre-oyster farm, blissfully aware that her days behind a desk are over, and her workday begins.

Oyster farming is mariculture – cultivating marine organisms in open water for food. And just like land-based farming, there’s a great deal of hard work and financial investment involved. Increased demand for oysters and depletion of wild oyster harvests have led to the popularity of oyster farming in North Carolina.

In the beginning, as Katherine explored the prospect of oyster mariculture, she reached out to established farmers. “They were all very generous with their time and with sharing their knowledge. It’s such a welcoming community!” She read an abundance of publications, reviewed academic research, examined step-by-step procedures, and utilized resources offered by North Carolina Sea Grant and UNC Wilmington. The Small Business and Technology Development Center helped with her business plan and assisted her in creating spreadsheets detailing cost, timelines, and projections. There was much to learn. “However,” she says, “at some point you just have to jump in and do it.”

She had a general idea of the area where she hoped to secure a lease permit (a lengthy process). She was aware of the pristine water quality and salinity of the Pamlico Sound, the distance from the mainland, and the lack of agricultural and storm runoff – all contributing to a superb location for oyster cultivation. So, when she happened upon an area tucked into a corner of Sandy Bay, off Hatteras Island, she knew that she had found that “sweet spot” and was eager to set up shop.

Meet FLUPSY. The FLoating UPweller SYstem is an essential piece of oyster farming equipment. It provides a protected environment for the oyster seed babies. Here the seeds are placed in silos with fine mesh screens as a pump constantly pulls seawater through the screens, delivering an all-you-can-eat buffet of tasty phytoplankton. They’ll remain here, receiving lots of care and attention, growing all the while, until their nursery days are over, and they graduate to the open-water of the farm.

Katherine uses mesh floating “grow-out” bags on her lease. The bags float on the surface allowing for adequate water flow and plentiful plankton, supplying the necessary nutrients for continued growth. Seaweed, algae, and barnacles attach to the bags potentially blocking water flow, so bags are regularly flipped to expose these organisms to air and light, reducing buildup. The bags are periodically emptied and pressure-washed as well. 

As the oysters grow, they are sorted for size and taken for a spin in the tumbler which breaks off the edge of the lip of the shell. This action promotes stronger, more uniformly shaped oysters and helps develop a deeper cup, promoting meatiness, and making them easier to shuck.

There are slow growers and fast growers, but it generally takes a year for the oysters to become adults. Katherine grows triploid oysters and because they’re sterile they don’t expend energy reproducing during the summer months (this is what causes fertile oysters to be thin and watery). As a result, they grow to market size faster and don’t lose body weight, remaining firm and plump. No more worrying about that pesky “R” month rule! These bivalves can be appreciated year-round.

Once harvested, the oysters are cleaned, packaged, and loaded into a refrigerated van, delivered on that day or no later than the next day. Slash Creek oysters are available in several Outer Banks restaurants and seafood retail shops.

Just as the taste of wine is influenced by the soil and climate in which grapes are grown (called terroir), the oyster’s distinct flavor reflects where it was grown (merroir). Slash Creek oysters benefit from an infusion of salty ocean water from Hatteras Inlet which is balanced by the briny waters of the Pamlico Sound. Katherine and her customers believe Slash Creek’s plump oysters with their clean, salty taste are the best. “There is much satisfaction derived from taking something from seed and growing a tangible product,” she says. “It’s rewarding to watch the oysters grow and to provide something to people that brings them pure joy.”

Oyster farming is labor intensive, dirty, stressful, and influenced by unpredictable and uncontrollable situations, such as storms, disease, and failed seed crops. “I’m filthy at the end of the day,” says Katherine. “And some days are so cold on the water, I feel like my fingers are freezing. But then there are other days on the water that are magical, and on those days, I feel like the luckiest person in the world.”

One might say the world is her oyster.

by Jennifer Kornegay on August 9, 2022 | Reprinted from Oyster South

FARM FRESH: GETTING TO THE MEAT OF SOUTHERN OYSTER FARMS

Cody and Rachel Faison are farming oysters to reap a harvest they can sell. But that’s only one aspect of their Ghost Fleet Oyster Co. farm in Hampstead, North Carolina. The couple puts equal emphasis on environmental sustainability, and they’re educating others about the need to improve local waters and sharing oyster aquaculture’s active role in these efforts. It’s why Ghost Fleet began its farm tours in 2021.

Photo by Justin Kase Conder / JKase.com

But before there could be farm tours, there had to be a farm. The Faisons started oyster farming in 2019 when they realized that, in conjunction with a shared love of eating oysters, they each had interests and strengths that would prove useful on an oyster farm. Rachel is an environmental scientist who specializes in sustainability. Cody has a food background, with a short stint at culinary school under his belt, plus a life-long love of fishing and being on the water. “We knew we could take these things and put them to work on an oyster farm,” Rachel says. “We became kinda obsessed with the whole culture of it,” Cody adds, “and felt we had to be a part of it. We couldn’t not do it; it’s a passion.”

The farm’s name stems from another pastime they’re passionate about. “We love diving off the NC coast, called the ‘graveyard of the Atlantic,’ and I saw a poster referring to the many shipwrecks as the Ghost Fleet of the Atlantic,” Cody says. “We felt like that name had a quintessential North Carolina feel to it, referencing the state’s maritime history and culture. And shipwrecks are great habitats for marine creatures. Wild oyster reefs and oyster farms are too. It just fit.”

Today, 50 percent of Ghost Fleet’s business comes from oyster sales, but the farm’s sustainability education – and the farm tours that teach it – are also a main pillar of the company. He and Rachel are both certified Coast Guard Captains, a requirement to take people on farm tours. Ghost Fleet also partners with local captains like Allen Wilson, owner of Coastline Captain, to help during the busy season and with large tours..

“We decided tours were the best way, a natural way, to educate our area on what this is farming stuff is all about,” Cody says. “Everything we’re doing and why is much easier to explain when we have people out at a farm site.” Tours of up to six people take to the water for three and a half hours. They start by looking at oyster seed and go all the way to Ghost Fleet’s grow-out farm lease, where they conduct a mini-harvest as a show-and-tell.  

The first lesson is teaching that smaller farm-raised oysters are tasty oysters that complement the wild harvest and deliver big benefits to the ecosystem. “The raw bar market wants what we are raising, but that’s the opposite of the history in this area, where people think only the big wild ones are good oysters,” Cody says. “We’re also teaching that you can eat farmed oysters all year-round now. And, we’re pointing out the environmental and sustainability positives of our aquaculture.”

The next lesson focuses on the “merrior” concept and is immersive with plenty of oysters for sampling. While North Carolina doesn’t allow eating farmed oysters right out of the water, the Faisons harvest a few and tag them just like they would for a normal, larger harvest, and place them in a certified shellfish cooler on the tour boat. Once they are down to temp, they get shucked and served to tour guests. “We try to interact with our fellow farms, too, and show tour folks that there are lots of great farms in these waters. We talk about how maybe they farm differently and how their flavor can be different too,” Cody says. “We really want to highlight the variety,” Rachel adds. “We liken it to craft beer.”

The tours have proven so popular, they’re running three to four a week yearlong, providing blankets and hot chocolate in the brisk winter months. This past summer, Ghost Fleet is quickly approaching 100 tours. And every trip is unique. “We start by telling them why oyster farming is important, why our business is important, but also ask them what they want to learn,” Cody says. They’re branching out too, adding a sunset option. “It’s locals and tourists signing up for our tours,” Rachel says. “They bring wine and snacks. It’s a teaching experience but lots of fun too.”

Photo by Justin Kase Conder / JKase.com

The main goal is to hammer home the community aspect of the oyster farming industry and invite tourgoers to join. In fact, there is an NC Oyster Trail that maps out restaurants, farmers, festivals and other aspects of the oyster community that they encourage their guests to explore. “We’re striving to get them excited about being a part of it as the consumer,” Cody says. “We have to have consumers to have an industry.”

Ghost Fleet offers free tours too; in fact, these outings make up about 30 percent of the tour schedule. “We take out 4-H groups, chefs and restaurant owners, local chamber of commerce and government people,” Cody says. “We want them to learn and then share what they’re learned. Not just for our farm’s future, but for the entire industry. More understanding is always better.”

And Ghost Fleet’s give-back mindset doesn’t stop there. The farm invests some of its tour revenue in a shell-recycling program. “It’s a service we provide for free to any area restaurant with oyster shells,” Cody says. Ghost Fleet worked with local restaurants to determine hurdles that they face when recycling oyster shells – such as the smell, staff education and transportation to recycling centers. Participating eateries get food grade buckets with lids, so they can use it right at their shucking station. When they’re full, they put them outside, and Ghost Fleet picks them up and delivers them to the North Carolina Coastal Federation, which uses the shells for reef restoration and living shorelines.

One restaurant just hit one ton of shells recycled through the program. “We’re showing that this industry is even more sustainable than you think,” Rachel says. “Yes, our oysters filter a lot of water, but we and other oyster farmers can and are doing so much more. We’re just doing everything we can to ensure we have healthy water. That benefits our farm, but it benefits everyone here.”

In the tradition of wine and ale trails, the state’s oyster trail aims to give the farmed shellfish industry a needed boost.

by Emily Cataneo on August 9, 2022 | Reprinted from Hakai Magazine

As the North Carolina farmed oyster industry grows, advocates hope to fuel consumer demand and build the industry’s profile with a tourism “trail.” Photo by Cody Traxler/Shutterstock

Cody Faison stands up to his chest in a marsh off the Intracoastal Waterway along North Carolina’s coast, holding a basket-like cage full of oysters. He shakes it back and forth in the water, spraying salty droplets into the air. The motion chips off some of the oysters’ new growth, encouraging their naturally oblong shells to take on the rounder, deeper form favored by his buyers. He’ll repeat the process up to 20 times over each oyster’s life cycle.

Faison finishes shaking; pale flecks of shell and silt float around him. He opens the cage and studies one of the bivalves. “Look at this shape,” he says, pointing at the round shell with its gnarled surface. “It’s incredible.”

Cody and his wife, Rachel Faison, are newcomers to the burgeoning farmed oyster industry in North Carolina. When it comes to seafood, the state has historically been better known for blue crab and fish such as flounder, mackerel, and bass. But the North Carolina fishing sector has struggled over recent decades due to a complex swirl of factors. Wild fish stocks have dwindled, as they have in so many places around the world, leaving coastal communities with less seafood and fewer jobs. Much local fish is exported out of North Carolina to other higher-paying US markets; coastal dwellers and visitors often end up eating fish imported from other countries instead, which in turn undercuts the price of any locally caught fish that might be available. Some fishers claim that strict state and federal regulations designed to conserve stocks undermine their livelihoods even more. As a result, the number of commercially licensed fishers in the state who actually used their licenses declined by about half between 2000 and 2021.

Cody Faison holds handfuls of juvenile oysters on his farm in North Carolina during a tour in late August 2021. These “seeds” float in the water within a cage and slowly mature until they’re ready for market. Photo by Emily Cataneo

Enter oyster farming. This practice has emerged as a solution that supporters promise will increase the amount of affordable local seafood and create jobs along the coast, while also benefitting the marine environment because of the oyster’s ability to filter impurities out of water. Though North Carolina’s coast is home to wild oysters, their numbers are depleted, and in 2018, the wild harvest was an estimated 15 to 20 percent of what it was historically. Advocates believe that oyster farming, which is generally considered a low-impact form of aquaculture, will also relieve pressure on the wild populations.

The oyster farming industry arose in the state a decade ago and began picking up steam in the past six years, attracting both established fishers and newcomers. Though applications have dipped during the pandemic, in 2019 the state received 106 requests for oyster farm leases—a fivefold increase from 2016. North Carolina Sea Grant, a program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, estimates that farmed oysters provided 271 jobs and contributed more than US $14-million to the economy in 2019. Jane Harrison, the program’s coastal economics specialist, says that represents an uptick, although exact figures for previous years are not available.

However, one big challenge that threatens to stymie growth is that many North Carolina consumers and visitors to the coast are ambivalent about locally harvested foods in general. And some North Carolinians are squeamish about aquaculture, due to bad associations with finfish farming or aesthetic concerns about cages bobbing in the water. Farmed oysters, it seems, suffer from an image problem.

Recognizing that the industry needed a higher profile, prestige, and support, the North Carolina Coastal Federation, North Carolina Sea Grant, and North Carolina Shellfish Growers Association came together to build a tourism offering highlighting oyster growers and outlets. The initiative, known as the North Carolina Oyster Trail, launched in May 2020 and primarily consists of an online map that highlights all 65 participating restaurants, farms, festivals, and markets, so that travelers can easily plot a self-directed route between them. Participating businesses also fly a blue-and-white flag, which bears a circular logo incorporating an oyster shell and the name of the trail, and cross-promote one another through informal referrals. The Faisons were quick to sign on after opening their farm in 2019 and say many of their visitors find them because of recommendations from other businesses.

North Carolina’s Oyster Trail flag flutters off the back of a boat during a tour in late August 2021. Participating businesses display the flag and help cross-promote one another. Photo by Emily Cataneo

At various stops along the trail, visitors can learn key tenets of oyster farming, such as the difference between water column farms, which use floating cages, and bottom farms, which involve fully submerged cages that resemble lobster traps (the Faisons have used both). They can also see how, for comparison, oysters grow in twisty clumps in the wild; or dine at a restaurant; attend a culinary event; or learn to shuck.

The Faisons’ tour, generally offered twice a week, begins on a public dock in the community of Hampstead, where cars and trucks pack the massive parking lot and a dry rack—the equivalent of a parking garage for boats, with forklifts to move the vessels around—looms over the launch ramp. With an oyster trail flag attached to the boat snapping in the breeze, the Faisons steer their pontoon through a maze of traffic and into the network of channels off the waterway, through cordgrass where the occasional alligator lurks in the summer months. They take guests to one of their three farm sites, offering commentary on ecology, food, biology, and history, depending on the group’s interests. During each tour, they also share their process of transforming the glittering, fingernail-sized “seeds” they buy from local nurseries into hefty, crusty-shelled adults ready for market.

Cody, a firefighter, and Rachel, an environmental scientist, were inspired to grow oysters themselves because they and their toddler ate the shellfish so frequently. They found a farmer to teach them and began leasing their sites in 2020, which, like all of the state’s oyster farms, are located in public waters along the North Carolina coast. They named their operation Ghost Fleet Oyster Company, after the colloquial name for the panoply of shipwrecks that dot this part of the Atlantic, and sell their oysters to restaurants and to tour participants or other consumers.

To join the oyster trail, the Faisons applied and paid a one-time fee, plus an annual membership fee. Aside from referrals and visits via the interactive map, they receive logistical help from other participants and industry updates from the trail founders—that information exchange helps them “to not be an island,” Rachel says.

The trail taps into existing tourism trends (think wine and ale trails and small-farm tourism) while also contributing to a nationwide surge in mariculture tourism. Virginia and Washington State both have oyster trails, and Maine recently launched a similar initiative.

When you’re dealing with climate change and the vicissitudes of the fishing industry, diversification is key, says Barbara Garrity-Blake, the president of NC Catch, a nonprofit that promotes local seafood consumption. The farmed oyster industry provides fishing communities with another product to sell. And the trail helps oyster farmers diversify within their own businesses. If the Faisons have a rough season or a hurricane wipes out one of their sites, they can rely on tourism revenue to make up some of the difference.

Faison, a newcomer to the oyster industry, shows a floating cage containing growing oysters at one of his farm sites. Photo by Emily Cataneo

On the tour, the Faisons like to emphasize the oyster’s ability to siphon impurities out of the environment and teach visitors to look closely at the marine ecosystem around them to build appreciation. Standing chest-deep in the sun-drenched, muddy waters of his farm site, Cody also points out a hermit crab crouched in its shell on one of the oyster cages and then a tangle of primordial-looking wild oysters dripping off a nearby exposed bank.

As oyster farmers build their businesses in the waterway, their success hinges in part on a societal shift taking place back on land. Buy-in from local chefs, who are key to building demand for North Carolina’s oysters, has been slow to grow. Restaurants in the state have often chosen not to prioritize local seafood, says Harrison, and if you went out for oysters in the state five years ago, you were not likely to find many from North Carolina. Though support from chefs seems to be growing, it’s still uncommon to find local oysters on menus. This is a wrong that the trail aims to right, hopefully by getting consumers excited about and invested in the industry. Ideally, demand will increase enough that growers will be able to fetch higher prices and see consistent sales, says Harrison.

In a tony strip mall on one of the retail-lined highways on the fringes of Wilmington, a coastal city in southern North Carolina, sits the Tidewater Oyster Bar, helmed by local seafood enthusiast and chef Chris Vergili. At the restaurant, sunburned tourists dig into oyster po’boys or stand at the old-school posh-looking bar, scrutinizing the blackboard scrawled with an explanation of where that day’s oysters hailed from. Vergili is busy, but he bustles out in a baseball cap long enough to sit at an outdoor table in the shade of the mall and explain his concerns about the state of local seafood: because the state’s fishers have a tradition of exporting their seafood to higher-paying markets, he worries that as oyster aquaculture grows, the farmers will increasingly sell their shellfish out of state, making it difficult for him to continue his mission of serving local seafood.

The Tidewater Oyster Bar in Wilmington, North Carolina, makes a point to highlight local oysters, offering varietals from different harvesting sites. Photo by Emily Cataneo

He recounts how another North Carolina restaurateur once visited him to ask what kind of fries he uses. “I asked him what kind of oysters he used. He went into how unaffordable it was to purchase local seafood,” says Vergili, who became a champion of the local-food movement in California before relocating to North Carolina in 2017. This fallacy, common among the state’s chefs irks him, he says, because he can buy North Carolina oysters for less than their South Carolina counterparts, and because the “merroir” of the North Carolina coast (like terroir, but with oysters) grants local oysters a higher salinity level, which in Vergili’s mind renders them much tastier. A lot of oyster bars in Wilmington use Virginia oysters, which don’t have any salt in their flesh, he says. “That kind of breaks my heart.”

At Tidewater, where a North Carolina Oyster Trail flag hangs in the window, Vergili uses oysters from multiple North Carolina sites. Servers describe each of the oyster’s flavor profiles, which vary based on water quality and salinity in each area; their laminated reference sheet describes one oyster as having a “buttery texture” and another “strong vegetable afternotes.” A mural in the back of the restaurant declares North Carolina the Napa Valley of Oysters, a slogan concocted by the state years ago as a promotional tool for the industry.

Like Harrison and the Faisons, Vergili hopes the oyster trail will create awareness about the industry—creating consumer appetite in the process, and in turn persuading more of his fellow local chefs to cater to that appetite.

Though the Faisons cannot stoke that demand for oysters while out on the water—state laws around refrigeration prevent them from plucking the animals from the sea and handing them directly to guests to eat—they can at least demonstrate how to shuck. Cody wraps a gnarled oyster in a white cloth, wincing in concentration as he leverages a blunt, blue-handled knife into the seam of the shell. It’s all about the angle, he says, and the twist at the end, which opens the shell with a quiet pop, unveiling the slick mollusk.

When the tour ends, the Faisons invite guests to their ranch-style house, a five-minute drive from the busy boat launch, where they sell bags full of dripping fresh oysters along with a sodden paper tag recording what time the oysters were harvested and when they were chilled. Visitors then have the chance to shuck and slurp a little morsel of their own from the North Carolina coast.

by Kelly Kenoyer on July 27, 2022 | Reprinted from WHQR

Bags of oyster shells are stacked on the beach to form a “living shoreline” in Carolina Beach State Park. Kelly Kenoyer/WHQR

Oysters are an important part of the intracoastal ecosystem, in addition to being delicious. And used currently, their shells can protect against erosion.

NC Coastal Federation set up a “living shoreline” in Carolina Beach state park in 2015, and holds occasional events to maintain the structure.

Farther toward the parking lot of the park, the sandy beach by the water is sloped and narrow. But it broadens close to the living shoreline, giving volunteers plenty of space to operate.

Bonnie Mitchell is the coastal education coordinator for NC Coastal Federation and says that’s no accident: the living shoreline helps extend the beach.

“So essentially what we’re looking at is a structure of bagged oyster shells that have been placed on top of each other in a strategic place along the shoreline of the Cape Fear River,” she said. The black mesh bags keep the oyster shells in place while allowing water to filter through, simulating a natural oyster bed.

Volunteers gathered on Friday, July 22 to pick up trash and put bags that had washed loose back into place. Dozens of tiny fiddler crabs, snails, and hermit crabs gathered near the water or in the lush wetland vegetation bunched behind the oyster shell structure, while pelicans flew past and egrets stood patiently in the shallow water. The shells and the wetland vegetation were both installed in 2015, and have thrived since.

The federation considers these events a great educational opportunity for those who participate: folks like Tara Wensel-Hinkle, who came with her daughter Lilly.

“I think it’s important for her to know that volunteering is something that she should do,” she said, ducking down to admire a shell her daughter showed her. “Being of service to the planet and to each other.”

The living shoreline also provides a habitat for new oysters to get their start in life- and once that happens, they’ll help keep the river clean by filtering 50 gallons of water a day each. And it’s more effective against erosion than man-made structures.

“For decades, the typical response to shoreline erosion was to build a bulkhead,” Mitchell explained. “But we find that this only increases erosion on down drift property, it degrades fish habitat, it interrupts fish larvae transport. We want to promote something that’s going to help with controlling erosion, but while also providing a real environmental benefit.”

Many fish spend part of their lifecycles in these oyster reefs, and once new oysters begin to grow there, they’ll filter the water and help mitigate the problems caused by stormwater runoff.

Click here to sign up to volunteer with NC Coastal Federation.

New trail along North Carolina coastline includes oyster farms, seafood markets, restaurants and educational sites.

by Jodi Helmer on July 25, 2022 | Reprinted from Carolina Public Press

Cape Fear Oyster company near Wilmington. Courtesy Scott Burrell.

Scott Burrell pilots his barge from Wilmington into the waters at the north tip of Figure Eight Island in North Hanover County. On the approach to the Cape Fear Oyster Co.’s farm, black plastic cages float in the water.

Burrell manages three leased sites in the Intracoastal Waterway that total just under 4 acres where he has the potential to grow up to 4 million oysters a year. He shares the entire process from oyster seed to half shell on guided tours of the farm designed to make North Carolinians more aware of the importance and vulnerability of oysters.

“It’s hard for people to imagine (an oyster farm) until they see it,” he explained.

Cape Fear Oyster Co. is one of the stops on the N.C. Oyster Trail, developed in partnership with the N.C. Coastal Federation, the N.C. Sea Grant and the N.C. Shellfish Growers Association to promote “oyster tourism” on the North Carolina coast.

The trail, launched in 2020, includes oyster farms, seafood markets, restaurants and educational sites in an effort to boost a threatened species.

Saving a species

Wild oyster populations in North Carolina have experienced dramatic declines; the number of harvested bushels dropped from 200,000 in 1960 to just 35,000 in 1994 due to overharvesting, habitat loss, disease and predators.

Although the numbers are on the rise — thanks, in large part to oyster farming — with harvested bushels climbing to 157,000 in 2019, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries continues to list them as a species of concern.

Oyster farming reduces the strain on wild oyster populations, allowing them to rebound while catering to local appetites for fresh seafood.

An oyster from Roysters NC. Courtesy Roy Emerson.

The N.C. Oyster Blueprint, a stakeholder action plan for restoration and protection of oyster populations, calls for “expanded and supported sustainable development of the shellfish aquaculture industry,” which includes increasing the number of oyster farms.

“There’s been substantial growth in the last five years and a big legislative push to fund the industry,” Burrell says. 

The COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on those efforts and created significant hardships for oyster farmers. Restaurants closed, causing most oyster farmers to lose their markets. The shellfish weren’t included on the U.S. Department of Agriculture list of specialty crops, making oyster farmers ineligible for federal aid like the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

Most of the restaurants on the N.C. Oyster Trail, which spans from Nags Head to Bald Head Island along the coast, closed or pivoted to takeout with limited menus. State mandates prevented farmers from offering tours. With restaurants reopening and restrictions easing, oyster farmers are eager to share their harvests again. 

Oyster farmer Roy Emerson believes that farm tours play a huge role in bolstering demand for oysters.

“The more knowledge the public has about what we do, the better it’ll be for the industry,” he said.

“You might complain about how much oysters cost in restaurants, but when you see how many people are involved in getting oysters to the plate, they don’t seem too expensive. The (N.C. Oyster Trail) helps us spread the word.”

Educating the public

Traveling the self-guided trail offers an opportunity for oyster lovers and the oyster-curious to learn more about the North Carolina shellfish industry and meet the farmers. 

“People can feel good about eating farmed oysters,” says Beth Darrow, chief scientist at the Bald Head Island Conservancy “Eating an oyster is tasting the flavors of the estuary it was raised in.”

Oysters on the North Carolina coast at Roysters NC. Courtesy Roy Emerson.

Roysters NC is one of 16 shellfish Farms on the N.C. Oyster Trail. Emerson started farming oysters on a leased site in Beaufort in 2018.

He grows the oysters in floating bags. Water and food flow through the floating bags, which are attached to the ocean bottom with anchors and lines, generating annual harvests of up to 200,000 oysters from the 2-acre farm.

It takes between 10 and 18 months for his oysters to mature. During that time, Emerson takes a boat out to the farm often to check on their progress; he removes mud, chips off wild oysters that have attached to the shells and moves the growing oysters to larger bags to ensure the shellfish are in perfect condition to sell to seafood wholesalers and restaurants.

“We touch them several times before they go to market,” he said. “A lot of people think we put the oysters out, they grow, and we harvest them when they’re ready, but there’s a lot that goes on in between.”

Embracing environmental benefit

The oysters are doing a lot of work, too. Oysters filter algae from the water, with a single oyster filtering up to 50 gallons of water per day, improving water quality. Oyster reefs also provide habitat for other species and protect against storm surge in coastal communities, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

At Bald Head Island Conservatory, one of the educational sites on the N.C. Oyster Trail, visitors can learn about barrier island environments and the importance of oyster ecology.

The nonprofit environmental education center also leads guided kayaking tours through the marsh to showcase wild oyster reefs, and volunteers can sign up to bag recycled oyster shells for reef restoration or count spat (baby oysters) as part of a citizen science project.

“Understanding something is the first step to protecting it,” Darrow said.

“Most of our visitors aren’t aware of the life cycle of oysters, that they spend time in the plankton or even that the reefs that (people) kayak through are full of living oysters. We support (the N.C. Oyster Trail) even though we are not an oyster-farming operation because we educate the public on the importance of oyster ecology.” 

The opportunity to educate the public about oyster farming was one of the reasons Burrell signed on to be part of the N.C. Oyster Trail. He hopes that teaching others about the industry will help it grow.

“The farmers have really banded together to support each other,” he said. “If we harvest wild oysters at the same rate (we’re harvesting farmed oysters), we’ll be overharvesting, and that’ll cause environmental issues.”

by Stacia Strong on July 24, 2022 | Reprinted from WRAL

A new effort is underway in the state to help restore wild oyster populations.

The program, which is being run by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), works by partnering with oyster growers.

Many consider program a win-win.

The oyster industry in North Carolina has grown dramatically in recent years, and now a new program will look to not only help bolster future wild oyster numbers, it will also benefit oyster growers in the state.

“The natural resources conservation service is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and they received funding to help producers implement conservation practices on their lands,” said Erin Fleckenstein with the North Carolina Coastal Federation.

Oyster growers can apply for this cost-share funding to help expand their growing capacity and to help restore wild oyster habitat.

“The current program with NRCS is to put down loose oyster shell on the bottom of their lease and then to allow natural oysters to recruit to that shell and cultch material and then the oysters are allowed to grow up and after a year the oyster farmer can either harvest those oysters or can allow them to continue to grow,” Fleckenstein said.

The program only recently began in North Carolina and now has one participant.

“I haven’t met anyone in North Carolina who is not excited about this,” said Petra Volinski, a supervisory soil conservationist with the NRCS. “I think it’s been a long time coming, there’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes work by our biologists and program staff. I can’t wait to get more people interested and can’t wait to get the word out.”

James Hargrove is the owner and operator of Middle Sound Mariculture and is now the first in the state to take part.

“It’s great to be able to pioneer it,” Hargrove said. “You know it is a learning curve, just trying to figure out what needs to be signed off on.”

For Hargrove, this isn’t just about being the first in the state to take advantage of this cost-share program, it’s an opportunity to expand his oyster-growing operation.

“[We] get to try another grow-out method,” Hargrove said. “That’s less intense, that would be geared towards more of the traditional roast market of oysters. it makes total sense to try and construct my own reefs that would be used to harvest.”

While Hargrove is the first, program coordinators hope he certainly won’t be the last.

“Right now, we’re trying to spread the word, and let people know this program exists and that there is an opportunity for them to take part in restoring this important habitat, and that there are cost-share funds available to help offset the expense of doing this,” Hargrove said.

The coastal federation is also closely working with natural resources conservation service to help connect oyster growers to this program.

Both groups say they hope to expand what the cost-share program can be used for in the oyster-growing industry once more people begin to utilize the current funding.

by Carl Hedinger on June 14, 2022 | Reprinted from NC Tripping

Following the NC Oyster Trail has become one of our favorite things to do in North Carolina since its inception in 2020. You’ll find many trail sites along the coast of Eastern North Carolina, with others popping up in Central and Western NC.

There are multiple ways to experience this fantastic trail, and we’ve created this guide to help you explore it, along with some helpful info about the NC oyster industry.

Here’s a breakdown of this guide to the NC Oyster Trail:

You can skip ahead to any section or continue reading about the NC Oyster Trail’s background.

When Can You Eat NC Oysters?

Things to do on Ocracoke beach fires oysters

Before we dig into NC Oyster Trail sites, it’s essential to understand when you can eat North Carolina oysters. Wild oyster season in North Carolina typically runs from October through March, but we can consume farmed oysters throughout the year.

Is Oyster Farming Sustainable?

NC Oyster Trail Oyster Farming

Oyster farming is also known as aquaculture or mariculture. They provide multiple benefits, including cleaner water, restored shorelines, and habitats for fish and other marine species.

Wild oysters may provide five times more benefits than farmed oysters, but the former’s populations struggle to recover from overharvesting.

On an oyster farm, a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water daily, taking away carbon dioxide that makes the water too acidic. They also filter out excess nitrogen from fertilizer runoff and other harmful processes.

Oyster farming is considered one of the most sustainable food production methods and is a growing industry in North Carolina.

What is the NC Oyster Trail?

NC Oyster Trail

The NC Oyster Trail was created in 2020 by the North Carolina Coastal Federation, the NC Shellfish Growers Association, and NC Sea Grant. This unique tourism experience’s purpose is to teach the importance of oysters for coastal communities, the state’s seafood industry, and the environment.

The three organizations mentioned above also work to replenish North Carolina’s once-abundant oyster populations. Overharvesting depleted the North Carolina oyster population and the NC Oyster Trail showcases its resurgence.

You can experience the NC Oyster Trail in many ways, which we’ll detail below. They include the following:

  • Oyster Farm Tours
  • Restaurants and Markets that sell NC oysters
  • NC Oyster Events

How to Find NC Oyster Trail Sites

As we mentioned, NC Oyster Trail sites are scattered along the North Carolina coast, joined by others in Central and Western NC. This official map will help you visually plan a visit.

Here are some of our favorite ways to experience the NC Oyster Trail.

Oyster Farm Tours

NC Oyster Trail Farm Oyster Seeds
Hold Fast Oyster Co in Snead’s Ferry.

Personally, an Oyster Farm Tour is the best way to explore the NC Oyster Trail. Any oyster lover should know where our food comes from, and a tour is a perfect way to do that!

NC Oyster Trail Oyster Farm Oyster Seeds

During an Oyster Farm Tour, you’ll talk to oyster growers, see the process from a sand grain-sized oyster seed to your plate, and learn about the environmental and social impacts.

Your tour may also include a sampling of oysters straight from the farm! Eating a salty oyster on a boat mere feet away from the farm will always be one of our most memorable experiences.

Oyster Farm Tour Companies

NC Oyster Trail Ghost Fleet Oyster Company
Cody Faison from Ghost Fleet Oyster Co.
NC Oyster Trail Ghost Fleet Oyster Co Oyster Farm Tour

Our friends at Only in Onslow invited us to join the Hampstead-based Ghost Fleet Oyster Company near Topsail Island. The husband-wife team behind Ghost Fleet wants to bridge the gap between the farm and your plate.

A tour with Ghost Fleet will include a visit to owners Cody and Rachel Faison’s farm for up to 4 hours, sunset on the water, and of course, some of the best oysters in North Carolina!

We don’t want to seem too biased, and we understand you may not be in the Hampstead area. So here are some more Oyster farm tour companies in North Carolina and their base of operations:

Have you ever joined an oyster farm tour? We’d love to hear about your experiences!

Restaurants

Ocracoke Restaurants Howards Pub
Howard’s Pub in Ocracoke!

Not all oysters served in our restaurants come from North Carolina, but more places are adding them to the menu! However, we know that these raw bars and restaurants are serving the best oysters in North Carolina!

If you’re unsure where your oysters came from, you can ask for a harvest tag indicating the date and location they were farmed. Restaurants are required by law to provide the oyster harvest tag to you.

Do you know of a restaurant in NC that belongs on the NC Oyster Trail? Let us know in the comments or by email.

Markets

Markets are a significant part of the NC Oyster Trail, as you’ll be able to connect with farmers in cities and towns throughout the state.

Some of these markets offer delivery (marked with *), so you can shop for the best oysters from your phone.

NC Oyster Trail Events

NC Oyster Trail NC Oyster Roast

You can learn about the NC Oyster Trail at these events held on our coast and elsewhere throughout the state:

  • North Carolina Seafood Festival: This event in Morehead City is a tremendous celebration, typically held at the beginning of October.
  • NC Oyster Festival: The NC Oyster Festival takes place in mid-October and offers music, fun events like shuck-offs and cook-offs, and more! Ocean Isle Beach in Brunswick County hosts the event, another reason to visit.
  • NC Oyster Week: Each October, the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources collaborates with the NC Oyster Trail, North Carolina Sea Grant, and the NC Coastal Federation to present events throughout the state!
  • Oyster Roasts and Fundraisers: Annual oyster roasts, fundraisers, and similarly themed one-off events occur throughout the year. NC Oyster Trail members prepare their tasty products and promote their excellent work at these events.

Do you know of any other NC Oyster Trail-friendly events to share? Kindly let us know in the comments section or by email!

More Ways to Experience the NC Oyster Trail

NC Oyster Trail NC Estuarium Washington NC

Beyond all the events, the restaurants, raw bars, and farm tours, these educational centers and institutions are crucial to spreading the NC Oyster Trail’s message:

  • Bald Head Island Conservancy: This non-profit offers guided kayak trips through Bald Head Creek’s oyster beds. You can also volunteer for oyster reef restoration with the BHIC.
  • Dare County Arts Council (Manteo): One unique stop on the NC Oyster Trail is the Dare County Arts Council. The artists within this organization love to incorporate oysters (and other marine themes) in their works.
  • Hatteras Island Ocean Center (Hatteras): Whether you’re staying on Hatteras Island or nearby Ocracoke Island, this is an ideal place to visit on the Outer Banks. Programs include kayaking through salt marsh and close-up looks at wild oyster beds.
  • NC Coastal Federation (Multiple Locations): The NCCF is one major player in the NC Oyster Trail, and this non-profit organization is deeply involved in restoring and protecting our coastal waters. Volunteers and support are always welcome!
  • NC Estuarium (Washington): The wonderful coastal town of Washington hosts the NC Estuarium. The center offers exhibits on North Carolina’s oysters and oyster farming.

More Themed Trails

Themed trails are a fun way to explore North Carolina, and there are even more beyond the NC Oyster Trail.

More Things to Do in Eastern North Carolina

by Zachary Eanes on June 13, 2022 | Reprinted from AXIOS Raleigh

Ricky Moore stands in front of the Saltbox Seafood sign at his Durham restaurant.
Durham chef Ricky Moore, of Saltbox. Photo: Courtesy of Forrest Mason.

Durham chef Ricky Moore of Durham-based Saltbox Seafood Joint is a James Beard Award winner.

  • Moore accepted the award for Best Chef: Southeast on Monday night in Chicago at the James Beard Foundation’s first in-person celebration since 2019.

Why it matters: Moore started serving fresh North Carolina seafood in a 200-square-foot shack off Mangum Street in 2012, and has turned the business into a restaurant with national recognition.

  • The original location closed last year, but Moore and his team still serve up his famous fried flounder, soft butter rolls stuffed with fish or shellfish, grouper bites, Hush Honeys, oysters and day-boat shrimp over at 2637 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd.
photo of Ricky Moore in a tuxedo after winning a James Beard Award, with the award around his neck
Moore after winning his award Monday night. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

“Bull City, North Carolina!” Moore said on stage after accepting the award. “I opened up a place that celebrates North Carolina seafood so I’m going to shout out North Carolina fisher folk, which means fisher men and women.”

Of note: Moore also gave multiple shout outs to his “home team, North Carolina,” which had several restaurants nominated for Best Chef Southeast, including: Cheetie Kumar, chef at Raleigh’s Indian-and-Asian restaurant Garland, and Charlotte’s Greg Collier, chef at Leah & Louise.

  • Moore is the second chef from Durham to win Best Chef: Southeast. Ben Barker won it in 2000 for his work at the now-closed Durham restaurant Magnolia Grill.
  • Other Triangle chefs who have won Best Chef: Southeast, include Chapel Hill’s Andrea Reusing in 2011 and Raleigh’s Ashley Christensen in 2014. Christensen also won the “Outstanding Chef” award in 2019.

by Jennifer Allen on June 6, 2022 | Reprinted from Coastal Review

A water column lease allows floating cages, like these, to farm shellfish. Photo: North Carolina Sea Grant
A water column lease allows floating cages, like these, to farm shellfish. Photo: North Carolina Sea Grant

Last year was a banner year for farmed oyster production in North Carolina, with a 111% increase compared to the previous year.

The state’s shellfish industry had $27 million in economic impact and supported 532 jobs in 2019, according to the latest available economic totals, and various groups are working together to double the number of jobs by the end of the decade.

Legislation introduced last week would fund numerous projects to protect coastal water quality to the tune of $8.5 million. Of that, $1 million is to match a federal grant for oyster sanctuary development, which is seen as key to growing oyster populations, improving water quality and supporting the shellfish industry.

On Thursday, Rep. Bobby Hanig, R-Currituck, filed House Bill 1151, which would provide money for living shorelines, oyster sanctuaries, marine debris cleanup and other water quality projects and for promoting the North Carolina Oyster Trail, a collaborative effort to promote oyster-based tourism experiences aimed at culinary travelers. The measure passed a first reading Tuesday and was referred to the House appropriations committee.

Hanig introduced the measure after a meeting Tuesday of the Marine Resources and Aquaculture Committee, which he chairs. The meeting included presentations by various groups seeking to advance the oyster farming industry and wild oyster restoration efforts, including seafood purveyors and the nonprofit North Carolina Coastal Federation, which publishes Coastal Review, North Carolina Sea Grant and the North Carolina Shellfish Growers Association.

“This bill provides policy guidance and more financial resources to enhance water quality and the resiliency of our coastal communities while increasing the productivity of our coast’s fishery habitats,” said Coastal Federation Executive Director Todd Miller.

Demand for NC oysters outpacing supply

Ryan Speckman and Lin Peterson launched Locals Seafood out of the back of a truck in Raleigh in 2010, specializing in North Carolina seafood. They told the House committee that back then, the product was all wild oysters.

Now, Speckman said, they’re probably the largest distributor of different varieties of North Carolina farmed oysters. The seafood company trucks in oysters from all along the state’s coastline to distribute to restaurants, markets and stores in the Triangle. The company also operates two oyster bars, one in downtown Raleigh and the other in downtown Durham. 

Speckman said the oyster industry is “definitely an area that we can see more growth, and there’s a lot more potential.”

Peterson added that even though the company is built on connecting North Carolina consumers with North Carolina products, demand is greater than supply and the company must bring in oysters from out of state.

But, there’s evidence that the state’s oyster industry is growing to meet the demand.

Jane Harrison, North Carolina Sea Grant coastal economics specialist, told the committee that the goal of a $100 million shellfish industry in North Carolina that supports 1,000 jobs by 2030 was possible, “looking at our trajectory over the last few years.”

The goals had been set as part of the 2019 North Carolina Strategic Plan for Shellfish Mariculture that the legislature had mandated two years earlier.

Harrison said that 2019 was the first year that farmed oysters contributed more than wild oysters in total economic value. Although there were over the past decade declining production values for wild oysters and clams, market growth for farmed oysters is “really bringing the value to our shellfish industry these days,” she told the committee.

Evidence of that growth can be seen in the number of shellfish farming leases. From 2020 to 2021, Harrison said there was a 10% increase in the number of leases. She added that North Carolina is seeing mostly water column leases, which allow floating cages, and bottom leases where oysters are grown below the surface. “We see higher productivity, really a better investment,” with water column leases, she said.

During the period, there was a 22% increase in water column lease acreage.

“Why does that matter? Again, because these (water column leases) are more productive. So because we have more productive farms coming online, we’re going to hopefully have much higher production numbers, shellfish landings and economic value,” Harrison said.

Although hurricanes and the coronavirus pandemic had slowed interest somewhat, the trend is improving again.

“We are seeing a pickup just from last year,” Harrison said, “a 16% increase in the number of applications to establish these kinds of farms.”

Along with the growth in oyster farming, Harrison said the decline in wild oyster harvests could be reversed.

“We can bring those back if we improve water quality, if we invest in oyster sanctuaries, in the habitat that supports them. The farmed oysters are making up some of the some of the losses,” she said.

The Division of Marine Fisheries posts signs like these at areas closed to shellfishing. File photo
The Division of Marine Fisheries posts signs like these at areas closed to shellfishing. File photo

Closed to shellfishing

The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries has an interactive map on its website that shows where waters are temporarily or permanently closed to shellfishing because of pollution. Other waters are off-limits to shellfishing because of moratoriums on shellfish leasing. 

Sanctuaries not only create oyster habitat, they also lead to improved water quality.

Erin Fleckenstein, coastal specialist with the North Carolina Coastal Federation and a presenter during the committee meeting, told members that much progress had been made in the year since the most recent update on the North Carolina Oyster Blueprint, a plan for restoring and protecting oyster habitat. More than 50 stakeholders across the state worked on the blueprint.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in the last year since that blueprint has come out,” Fleckenstein told the committee, adding that the successes have been because of the state’s investment in the oyster industry and improving water quality.

A program to build oyster sanctuaries is on track to reach the Oyster Blueprint goal of building an additional 100 acres of oyster sanctuary in Pamlico Sound by 2025. Fleckenstein said the sanctuary program had a 25-year track record of success and “we’re poised really well to reach that goal of 500 acres of oyster sanctuary by 2025.”

There are currently 15 oyster sanctuaries in Pamlico Sound as part of the Sen. Jean Preston Oyster Sanctuary Network that together cover about 260 acres. Oyster sanctuaries make up only about 6% of all oyster reefs in Pamlico Sound but contribute nearly 40% of the sound’s oyster population.

Harvesting is prohibited in oyster sanctuaries. They are protected to encourage growth of large, healthy oyster populations. Each year, the oysters produce millions of eggs that are carried by currents and tides to surrounding areas.

Jason Peters, who oversees the sanctuary, artificial reef and cultch planting programs for the North Carolina Division Marine Fisheries, told the committee that oyster sanctuaries are half of a two-prong approach to restoring the oyster population. The other prong is the open-harvest cultch-planting program, which supports the wild-harvest industry. The division builds the open-harvest reefs, and when the oysters reach the right size they can be harvested.

Pamlico Sound is the primary focus of the sanctuary program, Peters said.

Each oyster sanctuary site covers about 80 acres. Work began last year on Cedar Island sanctuary, the current project, which is permitted to be about 75 acres and expected to be complete in 2024.

“Oyster sanctuaries do in fact strengthen and support the oyster population in Pamlico Sound,” Peters said. The sanctuary sites produce lots of oyster larvae, which is dispersed into the water column and then settles on reef sites.

While the sites represent a small fraction of the total oyster habitat in Pamlico Sound, sanctuaries in the sound are producing about 25% of the larvae that are supplied to the ecosystem.

“Pamlico Sound Oyster Sanctuaries” looks at how oyster sanctuaries in the Pamlico Sound have been growing and thriving since construction started on the first one in 1996. Video: Baldwin Video Productions/North Carolina Coastal Federation

Peters emphasized the sanctuary network’s role in supporting the entire Pamlico Sound oyster population.

“Those larvae spread all throughout the Pamlico Sound and support reefs that are open to harvest. They subsidize commercially harvested reefs with critically important larvae,” he said. “And among other benefits, they are spectacular water filters, filtering dramatic amount of water with a small area so quite a benefit. and they last a long time and then.”

Not only are the oyster sanctuaries providing habitat for fish and oysters, but they’re also creating economic opportunities in coastal communities, said Fleckenstein, who cited Stephens Towing Co. as an example. The company has long worked with the federation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in building reefs in Pamlico Sound.

Will Hollowell, the company’s operations manager, told the committee that the company was equipped to build reefs at the right pace and at the right price. With one barge, more than 1,000 tons of rock or other materials can be placed in a day. And the work also employs others, such as the truck drivers who are moving rock from North Carolina quarries to the barge operators who are coastal residents. 

Along with reefs, demand for living shorelines has continued to grow, Fleckenstein told the committee. She said living shorelines also provide oyster habitat and they gird shorelines from erosion and protect and improve water quality, which is key to supporting the shellfish industry.

“We don’t want to risk the great reputation of North Carolina oysters by having people getting sick (from) eating oysters that are grown in poor water quality,” she said.

Fleckenstein told Coastal Review that Hanig had requested annual updates to the committee on the progress. She said the legislature’s desire to understand the progress being made in North Carolina’s oyster work was encouraging.

Less encouraging, as members of the committee noted, were moratoriums that prevent development of oyster farming operations in certain waters.

One moratorium in Brunswick County dates back to 1967 and another for a portion of Core Sound to 1993. The General Assembly in 2019 enacted shellfish moratoriums in waters from the Wrightsville Beach drawbridge through Masonboro Inlet to the mouth of Snows Cut in New Hanover County and in Bogue Sound in Carteret County that were to expire in 2021 but were extended last year until 2026.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, suggested that the committee consider ways to address the moratoriums. Hanig agreed, saying it was imperative.

“This industry impacts traditionally low-wealth counties, and we do everything we can to build them up,” Hanig said.

Chris Matteo, head of North Carolina Shellfish Growers Association, a trade association representing about 70 growers in the state, and owner of Carteret County-based Chadwick Oysters, explained how much the shellfish industry means economically. North Carolina oysters are being sold out of state and that money is coming back into the state’s economy, he said.

“The impact on the state’s rural economic development is also meaningful and expanding every year. A lot of us grow oysters in areas that are not a great place to make a living, and it’s really impacting the local economies in a positive way,” said Matteo.

He told the committee that investments made in the shellfish industry “are really beginning to pay off.” The fact that the industry continues to grow after storms and during the pandemic, he said, “is really a testament to your support and to the tenacity of the group that grows shellfish in the state.”  

© 2022 NC Oyster Trail.