by Meggan Robinson on April, 25, 2023 | Reprinted from Tasting Table

Photo: sweet marshmallow/Shutterstock

Imagine you order a dozen oysters on the half shell, and when they arrive, you discover they’re green in color — an odd hue, particularly around the edges. You might be tempted to send them back, but you might also be missing out on an unexpected delicacy. Green gill oysters aren’t oysters that have gone bad; they’re a rare find that’s only available seasonally and can only be found in a couple of places in the world.

Green gills haven’t always been prized; in fact, the folks who harvested them in the U.S. used to have to sell them off cheap or even discard them because consumers didn’t understand them. Oyster promoter Tres Hundertmark told Coastal Review, “I had to throw them away. People like green vegetables, they don’t like green meat.” The days of buying discount green gill oysters from a waterman looking to unload them for next to nothing are over, though, and it turns out that it just took a while for a few oyster producers in one U.S. state to catch up to what the French have known for much longer.

What exactly is a green gill oyster?

Photo: Chironfils Huitres

Oysters are filter feeders, which means they get their nutrients and flavor from the water they live and grow in. That’s why oysters from different places are prized (or shunned) for their unique flavors. There’s one tiny creature, a micro-algae about the size of a width of human hair called Haslea ostrearia, that’s solely responsible for green gill oysters. Haslea ostrearia are diatoms, a kind of algae that are typically golden brown in color, but this species has a brilliant blue pigmentation known to the French as marennine.

As oysters pull in nutrients from their habitat — either farm-raised or naturally grown — green gill oysters retain some of the color from filtering the micro-algae, which stains the flesh with a range of blue-green hues. Interestingly, though it’s safe to eat oysters year-round, the blue-green hues of green gills are only apparent in colder months, appearing first in the fall, deepening over the winter, and vanishing again as waters warm in the spring.

Where can you find green gill oysters?

Photo: Sandbar Oyster Company

Green gill oysters have long been cultivated in France, specifically in the waters of the Marennes-Oléron coast, which is in the southwestern part of the country. There, green gill oysters are carefully tended in claires, or shallow clay ponds, where both salt and fresh waters mingle and provide an ideal climate for Haslea ostrearia. The fines de claires vertes are prized for their distinctive green color and flavor.

As it turns out, there’s another place where Haslea flourishes, and it’s the waters of North Carolina. In the marshy estuaries of the state’s extensive waterways, naturally-occurring green gills had long been sold at discount prices because they weren’t commercially desirable. That’s now changed, though, and oyster operations like the Sandbar Oyster Company have begun deliberately farming green gill oysters, capitalizing on the unique “merroir,” a term akin to terroir, but referring to a marine environment.

Do green gill oysters have a distinct flavor?

Photo: Sandbar Oyster Company

French green gills were awarded the distinction of the Label Rouge, or Red Label, in 1989, the very first seafood product to attain the honor, which is regulated by the French Ministry of Agriculture. As North Carolina production of green gills has flourished, with varieties like the Atlantic Emeralds, American Jade, Divine Pine, and Wild Greens, you may wonder if it’s the color alone that makes these oysters so desirable.

As it turns out, green gills have a distinctive flavor as well. Some describe them as salty and nutty. Others characterize the flavor as earthy, briny, and creamy. Mike McCarty, Executive Chef of The Lobster Trap in Asheville, shared a particularly lyrical description of green gills with WNC Magazine, relating, “Eating these oysters is like taking a sip of delicious champagne,” adding, “Their flavor is very unexpected for that of a North Carolina oyster: salt at the front followed by a sweetness and truffle flavor on the finish — very clean and crisp.”

How should you serve green gill oysters?

Photo: Little Star Oyster Farm/Facebook

If you are lucky enough to procure green gills, they should be enjoyed as the delicacy they are. Those that are true oyster aficionados hold fast to the opinion that the best way to consume them is raw, carefully shucked, and served on the half shell. But don’t make the mistake of simply gulping down these coveted green delicacies from the shell and swallowing them whole; rather, savor them to explore their distinctive flavor and texture. 

For those who aren’t thrilled with the idea of eating raw oysters, an ideal way to showcase this rare prize from the sea is through a simple grilled preparation with savory compound butter swimming in the shell and a light smoke from the fire. Though dishes like oysters Rockefeller are certainly delicious, all that flavorful topping would conceal what makes green gill oysters so unique and is better saved for oysters that are more widely available.


by Katie Mosher on April 19, 2023 | Reprinted for NC Sea Grant

Cody Faison from Ghost Fleet Oyster Company / Photo: Justin Conder

The 2023 North Carolina Oyster Summit will convene on May 9 and 10 at the Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh. North Carolina Sea Grant is among the sponsors for the summit that brings together oyster researchers, managers, growers, harvesters, restaurateurs, restoration practitioners, state legislators, educators and others.

The North Carolina Coastal Federation is hosting the event to highlight an update for the NC Oyster Blueprint. For 20 years the Blueprint has guided partnerships focusing on restoration, protection, and growing the state’s oyster resources. This summit’s theme is: Resilient Coasts for Future Roasts.

“The NC Oyster Summit is the premier opportunity to get up to speed on our state’s oysters,” says Jane Harrison, North Carolina Sea Grant’s coastal economist and co-founder of the North Carolina Oyster Trail. “Sea Grant has been a long-time partner not only for the NC Oyster Summits, but also over many decades of oyster research and outreach.”

The NC Oyster Trail will be the topic of an oyster tourism panel on May 10. Ghost Fleet Oyster Co. will share their experiences as oyster growers and also discuss what it’s been like to open their farm for agritourism.

In addition, Eric Herbst, North Carolina Sea Grant’s coastal aquaculture specialist, will serve with partners on a panel highlighting successes and challenges for oyster mariculture. Speakers include Chris Matteo, president of the N.C. Shellfish Growers Association, and Tal Ben-Horin, a shellfish pathologist from NC State University. The session also will provide an update on the NC Shellfish Farming Academy based at Carteret Community College.

“When I think of resilience and North Carolina’s coast, two things immediately come to mind, shellfish farmers and oysters. In spite of three hurricanes and a global pandemic, our state’s shellfish aquaculture production has more than doubled in the last five years,” Herbst notes.

“Wild harvests are trending up as well. Oysters and clams are inherently resilient bivalves. But the success also is a testimony to the efforts by shellfish growers along with local, regional, state, and national organizations, institutions and agencies. All are working together and toward a common goal.”

For NC Oyster Summit registration and other details, visit:

“In addition to learning from the experts panels, you can sample oysters from along our coast, and even experience a shucking competition at the reception” Harrison adds.

The oysters that cluster more than 300 miles of coastline are bringing in tourists from across the globe. Here, we explore just why the briny shellfish is reason alone to visit.

by Ellen Himelfarb on March, 14 2023 | Reprinted from National Geographic

The coast of North Carolina fans out like a scallop’s edge, forming hidden inlets caressed by warm breezes. It’s positively spoiled for shoreline — blessed twice over due to the wispy chain of barrier islands with their heroic dunes and salt marshes. 

And yet in the whip-thin towns of the Outer Banks and beaches to the south, people must surely be outnumbered by the scoops of pelicans that glide overhead. The coastal lowlands are as far from an international airport as London is from Lockerbie and unrecognisable from the wild Appalachian mountainscapes inland. This makes the coast a blessed find for outsiders seeking a windswept retreat with notes of romance and history.

The residents like it that way. Their life here is bound up in the brittle coastline and fragile ecosystem of flora and fauna that’s been in slow decline since British settlers arrived in the 16th century. And now, they’ve seized the opportunity to reverse the effects of historic overharvesting and environmental stressors. 

The North Carolina merroir (a play on ‘terroir’ used by the marine farming sector) has such high concentrations of salt that you can practically smell it through the cordgrass. Some varieties, like the Crab Slough oyster found off Cape Hatteras, house a tiny pea crab in the place of a pearl. As they mature, they absorb nutrients and filter impurities like excess carbon through their gills, making the water more hospitable for other sea life. Truly, they’re superheroes of underwater multitasking. 

Locals in North Carolina have been rebuilding the oyster industry. Photograph by Jeyhoun Allebaugh

Locals have responded on every front to the challenges of rebuilding the oyster industry. “Willis Brother’s Seafood was an economic hub of our county. Over time, the building became a dilapidated eyesore. I had so many fond memories growing up here, so we purchased it in 2015,” says Sue Hill of Down East Mariculture, a hatchery providing farmers along the coast with oyster seedlings, or ‘spat’. “I had no idea what I was going to do with the building, but I knew I wanted to do something to help commercial fishermen and women who couldn’t make a living doing what their families have done for generations. Mariculture is a relatively new, growing industry in North Carolina. So, I thought, I can do that!” 

Those teardrop-shaped clams are like fossils scarred with the history of the Old South. Beloved by the Algonquin natives and netted out of vast reefs by British settlers, the eastern oysters delighted early Americans and kept Southerners working in the battered post-Civil War economy. Fishermen of the last century dredged stocks to almost nothing, though, while hurricanes and pollution did their own damage. 

Oysters are in abundance in North Carolina. Photograph by Jeyhoun Allebaugh

In the years before the pandemic, coastal North Carolina embraced a new ambition, and that’s to become for oyster-lovers what Napa Valley is to oenophiles. In 2020, the North Carolina Oyster Trail launched with an online map of major sites for spotting, purchasing, eating and celebrating oysters. What’s made this possible is the proliferation of oyster farming in this stretch of the Eastern Seaboard. 

Unlike the wild kind, farmed oysters don’t spawn and grow according to season — they mature year-round to a uniform size that looks tantalising by the half-shell on a bed of ice. Small-scale growers nurture them from minuscule spat, and ‘plant’ them in mesh beds that bob on the water. And together they’ve put the state back at the shucking-edge of the oyster business. “Our first season, we worked with two oyster farmers,” says Hill. “Five seasons later, we now work with 64.”

Operations like Hill’s are the heart and soul of the Oyster Trail, offering the sort of experiences that make a holiday. At Slash Creek Oysters up the coast on Pamlico Sound, Katherine McGlade and Spurgeon Stowe take visitors round their farm on a boat called Half Shell to watch tidal seawater wash through blooming molluscs. And at Oysters Carolina on the shellfish sanctuary of Harkers Island, local legend Ryan Bethea conducts tasting odysseys around the salty Back Sound by kayak. 

Blue Water Grill, a casual, woody affair on Roanoke Island with fishing nets hanging from the rafters, has always managed to elevate the oyster, much to the delight of longtime customers. The restaurant is celebrated for its October oyster roasts and bloody Mary pairings. Now, with the mariculture boom, owner Scott Shields no longer has to dispel the notion that oysters shouldn’t be eaten in a month without an ‘r’. Oyster farms override that old prohibition, which is linked to regulations for the wild oyster harvest.

For locavores seduced by a fleshy oyster doused with jalapeno remoulade, there’s no better setting for slurping than a family business whose owners fish to live and live to fish. As for the tropical climate, 400-year history and inconceivable quiet… they’re like the spicy dash of Tabasco on top.

Plan your trip

To discover more about North Carolina and how to book your trip, visit and 

by Mike Wagoner on February 2023 | Reprinted from Island Review

Hooray for the “R” months and the oysters they bring us. Oysters are among my favorite seafood delights. You might say that oysters are one of those foods that should just be savored … without putting too much analytical thought
into the juicy-goo of it. A wild and zany guy named Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) of Dublin, Ireland, once suggested: “He was a bold man who first ate an oyster.” Jeremy and Carol Stevens of Simply Oysters & Seafood in London, England, tell us that oysters have been around since the days when dinosaurs roamed – some 200 million years ago. “Archaeological evidence shows traces of scorch marks on ancient oyster shells consistent with fire,” according to the Stevenses. “This suggests that humans placed oysters on the embers of a fire or heated stones, and then cooked them for a few minutes until the oyster shells popped open.” “Jonathan Swift overcame his fear of oysters to become an enthusiastic advocate of oysters,” they said. “In Swift’s most famous book, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (1726), the main character became shipwrecked at Lilliput, where he collected and ate oysters on the beach.” “Swift even penned instructions on how to boil oysters: ‘Take oysters, wash their shells clean, then put the oysters into an earthen pot, then put the pot into a kettle of water, and let them
boil. Your oysters are boiled in their own liquor and not mixed with water.”

Christopher Joyce, science correspondent with National Public Radio, said the first “oyster dinner” by humans may have occurred in caves at Pinnacle Point on the southern coast of South Africa. He cited research conducted by Dr. Curtis Marean, an anthropologist at Arizona State University. Stuart Walton, a science writer in Brighton, England, said Dr. Marean’s findings may mean that oysters “actually saved mankind and hastened our evolution from beast to man.” “Was the first human to eat an oyster fearless or starving Neither,” Walton said. “Any revulsion for, or fear of oysters, is a modern construct from people who wear shirts, skirts and suits.

The reality is that our ancestors would have gorged themselves on oysters every chance they got.” “The oyster is one of nature’s most bountiful foods, rich in minerals, protein, vitamin D, zinc, iron and copper as well as possessing high levels of vitamin C, phosphorus, niacin and riboflavin. But it doesn’t stop there. They’re also rich in beneficial antioxidants, healthy cholesterol and omega-3 fatty acids. Besides, oysters are easy to harvest and so soft that they’re easy to eat for all age groups.” The Greeks and Romans considered oysters to be a delicacy. In Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, emerged from a foamy sea on an oyster shell. The Greeks became the first to cultivate oysters by scattering “broken pottery pieces where oysters grew to get the oyster babies to attach.”

During the 19th century, oysters were sold at every street corner in London. Oysters were also very popular with bars since they were seen as a cheap food to serve alongside liquor and beer. Such establishments came to be known as “oyster saloons,” and the popularity soon extended to America’s large northern cities. In the South, the term was “oyster house,” said Robert F. Moss of Charleston, S.C., an author of numerous books on Southern food and drink. “Being on the coast with an active port, Charleston was the heart of oyster-eating in the Carolinas before the Civil War,” Moss said. “Hundreds of bushels of oysters came into Charleston from
Beaufort, N.C.”

Oysters in English Literature

By the 1820s, an “Oyster Row” of restaurants in Charleston, S.C., was thriving. They were selling more oysters than beef steaks, according to Suzannah Smith Miles of Charleston Living Magazine. One of the major players was David Truesdell, an entrepreneur who had relocated from New York City. He ran the best “oyster house” in Charleston and also perfected oyster farming on 200 acres of land that he leased on nearby Sullivan’s Island close to Breach Inlet. The locals dubbed Truesdell as the “Oyster King.” Miles wrote: “He had shown that, with care, oysters could be developed, improved upon and raised with the same scientific experimentation that cotton planters used to develop a finer product.” “The unstoppable Truesdell accomplished what he set out to do. He made a tidy fortune through oysters. If one could give a fitting epitaph for this unique waterman, it would be that, indeed, ‘the world was his oyster.’”

Curiously, that phrase was coined by legendary British poet and dramatist William Shakespeare in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a comedy published in 1602. Ed Goldswain, who taught English literature for four decades in London, England, is a Shakespearian scholar. He explained: “‘The world is your oyster’ saying is often offered as encouragement to young people about to embark on adult life. It simply means that everything is open to them, and if one is lucky, he or she could encounter something special.” “If you have an oyster, there is a chance that there may be a pearl in it. A nice fresh oyster can be hard to open, but once opened, it’s good,” Goldswain said. “And perhaps it may have a pearl in it, which would be a valuable addition to one’s life.” “So when we set out to seek our fortune, the pearl is the good luck we may have. If we’re lucky we will find it,” Goldswain said. The odds of finding a natural pearl in an oyster are said to be 1 in 10,000. The odds of it being a pearl of gemstone quality are 1 in 1,000,000.

“Life can be hard, but if you keep at it, it will sometimes unexpectedly give you a reward,” Goldswain said. “That’s why
Shakespeare’s original quote ‘the world’s mine oyster’ has evolved into a favourite metaphor for life.” Getting back to Truesdell, his oyster farming operation was “pearl worthy,” wrote Robert F. Moss. “Borrowing techniques from rice planting, he built brick abutments with floodgates to control the flow of the tide into his beds, which allowed him to cultivate and harvest even during high tides. “Truesdell’s beds were a tempting target for poachers, and the oyster farmer was reported to have stood guard nightly over his crop with a blunderbuss and a brace of pistols.”

Oyster Experts Delve into the ‘R’ Month Rule of Thumb

Can you really only eat oysters in “R” months of September through April?

Southern Living magazine recently asked Sheri Castle of Chapel Hill, N.C., to check it out. She’s a highly respected cookbook author, recipe developer and cooking teacher. “The rationale behind skipping oysters during the warmest months was to avoid oysters that might not taste good or, even worse, be unsafe to eat,” Castle reported. “Back when we had only wild oysters, summertime was a factor on several fronts. Wild oysters spawn in the summer when the water is warmest.” “In many places, oyster season closed during that time period to give the oysters opportunity to reproduce, yielding a more generous and sustainable oyster harvest later in the year. Another factor is that spawning oysters are small, watery and have an unpleasant off-taste.” Christine Gallary of San Francisco, a contributor to the popular Kitchn food-focused website, drew a similar “R” month assignment.

Rowan Jacobsen, author of “A Geography of Oysters,” confirmed that when spawning, oysters tend to “get soft and rank.” He said that prior to refrigeration, “it wasn’t safe to eat raw animals in wooden barrels that had baked all day on the docks.” “Oysters have to be refrigerated the moment they come out of the water and stored at that temperature all the way to your plate,” Jacobsen said. “Most oysters still taste much better in fall and winter than they do in summer,” he said. “Oysters taste best out of cold water, so I say to follow the frost line – southern oysters in late winter and early spring, northern oysters in fall.” He encourages everybody to feel comfortable “eating oysters from anywhere” during the holidays – from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Castle said that “times, and oysters, have changed, and now it’s perfectly all right to eat oysters in May, June, July and August. The United States has made huge strides in the safe and sustainable harvesting of oysters.” “The popularity and availability of farmed oysters has surged,” she said. “Cold water farms can produce edible oysters year-round. On farms in warmer waters, the oyster breeds are often triploids, which means they are sterile, similar to seedless fruits and vegetables. Oysters that never spawn cannot suffer the flavor and quality issues caused by summertime spawning.”

C.J. Husk, who is the brand ambassador and “oyster dude” at Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Mass., told Gallary that “these days, the ‘R’ in oystering stands for ‘refrigeration.’” Chris Sherman, company president at Island Creek, said the
best way to store raw, unshucked oysters at home is to place them in a bowl in the refrigerator. “Cover them with a damp dish cloth so they don’t dry out. They don’t have to sit on ice, but make sure the refrigerator temperature is around 38 or 39 degrees. For the best result, eat oysters within a week of harvest.” The old “R-Rule” is simply out of style, stated Tyler Chadwick of Carteret County, founder and owner of Carolina Gold Oyster Company, located north of Beaufort on Merrimon Road. Today’s technology and research have made it safe to consume oysters in the “non-R months.” “Let’s move into the now and future in the world of oysters. Enjoy oysters every month of the year,” he said. Ryan Speckman, a seafood distributor based in Raleigh, said what really seals the deal is that there’s been a tremendous upswing in the number of chefs who are willing to put oysters on their menus year-round.

by Miriah Hamrick on February 17, 2023 | Reprinted from WilmingtonBiz

Epic Excursions offers trips to uninhabited barrier islands near Wrightsville Beach that also include a culinary adventure. (Photo c/o Epic Excursions)

For Ian and Kristi Balding, inspiration struck during a vacation in the Bahamas.

The couple was drawn to outdoor adventures while on vacation, and during this trip, they booked an experience where the captain aboard a chartered boat caught fish, transported guests to an island and cooked the fresh catch over a bonfire.

“It just felt like adventure,” Kristi Balding said.

The Baldings started their business, Epic Excursions, to provide a similar sense of adventure on uninhabited barrier islands near Wrightsville Beach. At first, the company didn’t offer food experiences like the one Kristi Balding recalled; instead, it focused on other island activities such as boat charters, paddleboarding or camping. After a couple of years, Epic Excursions began adding options for private groups: a catered seafood boil prepared by Cape Fear Boil Company; then a more informal steam pot version provided by Topsail Steamer; and most recently, a collaboration with True Blue Butcher & Table, with choices ranging from burgers cooked fireside to steaks served with champagne and caviar.

“It’s that whole experience of going out to an island and doing something fun and different,” Kristi Balding said.

Last September, the company introduced its first public food excursion with the Oyster Farm Tour & Tasting experience, a three-hour boat tour that starts with a trip to Middle Sound Mariculture, where owner James Hargrove leads a tour of his oyster farm and shares information about oyster cultivation. The last two hours of the tour are spent on an island off Wrightsville Beach, where guests enjoy an oyster tasting paired with complimentary wine.

These tours have proved popular so far; the most recent trip in February sold out.

“Right now, with it getting advertised and people learning about it, we are seeing a lot more excitement,” Kristi Balding said.

Originally envisioned to prop up business during slower fall and winter months, she now sees a possibility of continuing the oyster farm tours year-round. In general, she said the food excursions have become “really popular” and now make up about half of the business.

Like the Baldings and their customers, travelers seem hungry for guided experiences in destinations, particularly coastal ones such as Wilmington. “Beach,” “tour,” and “island” were among the most popular search terms on Tripadvisor last year, according to the organization’s Year in Review report for 2022. The report also noted a surge of interest in unique, small-group experiences like those provided by Epic Excursions and another local purveyor of food tourism, Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours.

Previously known as Culinary Adventures with Liz Biro, the Durham-based Taste Carolina took over Biro’s Wilmington operation in 2014. Today, Taste Carolina offers tours in nine cities in North Carolina: Asheville, Chapel Hill/Carrboro, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Hillsborough, Raleigh and Winston-Salem in addition to Wilmington.

Over three hours, participants on Wilmington’s walking tour are hosted by chefs and owners at five or six restaurants, where they enjoy a curated sampling of the establishment’s food and drink offerings.

“We really look at these tours as a collaborative opportunity to show off downtown Wilmington as a culinary destination,” said Lesley Stracks-Mullem, owner of Taste Carolina.

Along the way, local guides share stories about the architecture, culture and history of downtown, which Stracks-Mullem said frequently comes up in guest feedback as an unexpected bonus. 

“What we find is people sign up because they want to eat delicious food and spend time with friends and family, but then they’re surprised that they learned so much about downtown,” she said.

Currently, Taste Carolina offers tours in Wilmington Tuesday through Saturday, according to Stracks-Mullem. The company has tours booked every Friday and Saturday in February, and that number increases in the busier spring, summer and fall months.

To meet rising demand for Wilmington’s food tours, Stracks-Mullem said she hopes to increase tour availability to daily offerings with two options on Saturdays.

“That way, when people are coming into town, or if they have visitors coming into town, or if they want to get together with their work team or friends, there will be something on our schedule when they’re looking for it,” she said.

Stracks-Mullem said she sees the growth of Wilmington’s food tours as part of a larger trend of food tourism.

“We focus on restaurants that are locally owned, that are supportive of the local culinary and farm community. They’re sourcing ingredients locally, and people get to learn more about that,” she said. 

Kristi Balding described a similar force at work with Epic Excursions’ new oyster farm tour. 

“That tour is enticing to people who really want to know the culture, the technical side of oysters and how they’re raised and farmed. We have people that want to get involved with stuff like that on the tours,” Kristi Balding said, “and we have some people who just want to throw back some oysters and enjoy an island.”

by Emory Rakestraw on February 1, 2023 | Reprinted from Business NC

Looking out onto Bogue Sound, one might envision a permanent vacation, the expanse of water and marsh beckoning visitors to sit back, relax and soak in the uninterrupted views. Others see possibilities, namely an opportunity to jump into North Carolina’s $30 million oyster industry, one that’s expected to hit $100 million by 2030. 

These two outlooks are creating a clash in coastal North Carolina. Potential oyster farmers are hoping to land water leases and set up small farms, while homeowners and local lawmakers are fighting back with moratoriums. Current discourse threatens to halt a burgeoning industry flush with environmental benefits. 

In Onslow County, the estuarine waters of Stump Sound envelop Permuda Island, approximately 1.5 miles long, with archaeological evidence dating the earliest occupation to
300 B.C. Native Americans would scour the island for oysters, clams, scallops and crabs. Centuries later, when Europeans made landfall on the North Carolina coast, towering oyster reefs beckoned a new economy as bushels were traded for supplies. 

By the 1800s, North Carolinians would often tong oysters from the shallow-water mud, and as reefs and beds became depleted in Maryland and Virginia, “oyster pirates” armed with Winchester rifles traveled south. Using dredges that gathered both seed and mature oysters, they pillaged the waters of Hyde, Dare and Carteret counties until 1891, ceasing only when the National Guard interfered. By 1902 oyster harvesting reached its peak, with 5.6 million pounds of oyster meat harvested that year. There was essentially no regulation at the time, says Erin Fleckenstein, a scientist with the nonprofit N.C. Coastal Federation.

Carteret Community College offers classes in oyster farming.

“The thing with oysters is that you’re not only harvesting the product, but you’re also harvesting the habitat,” she notes. “Centuries of harvest, disease, storms and water quality impacts from land development have decimated our wild population. It’s an uphill battle.” 

The oyster is a simple creature, living life in one spot despite what Mother Nature or man might conjure. Oyster reefs modify and create   habitats for other aquatic life, accumulate marine biotoxins, and help prevent algal blooms. The average adult oyster also filters up to 50 gallons of water per day. 

Yet wild oyster populations have continued to struggle. Harvesting and disease decimated an estimated 95% of the natural oyster population over the past two centuries. Conservation efforts in recent years have helped raise the population to about 15% of its historic total, researchers say.

Oyster farming has stepped in to bridge the gap, providing the same environmental benefits and briny bivalves. Placed in their natural growing environment of sounds, marshes and intertidal waters, seed oysters (also called spats) reach harvest in racks, bags or cages. The spats are left in the water for about 18 months, tumbled by the tide, sorted for size, and often harvested at 2 or 3 inches. 

These “manicured” oysters are shaped through the process of transferring and spacing, resulting in deep cups, hearty meat, and an aesthetic deserving of half-shell status. The majority are sold year-round, both locally and nationally, to restaurants, distributors or grocery stores. With nearly 2.1 million acres of estuarine waters in North Carolina, Fleckenstein notes the number of acres needed to have a sustainable aquaculture industry is only a drop in the bucket.  

Farming oysters

In 2013, Chris Matteo shifted careers from finance and investment management to oyster farming, opening Chadwick Creek Oysters and Seed Nursery in Bayboro. At the time, Matteo was one of the few growers in the state, and Chadwick Creek’s nursery helped foster budding aquaculture businesses with Matteo advising hopeful farmers. In 2018, he became president of the North Carolina Shellfish Growers Association, which now has about 40 members.

Bayboro’s Chris Matteo is a shellfish industry leader.

Matteo compares the lure of oyster farming to that of purchasing a well-established vineyard. He says North Carolina has been called the Napa Valley of oysters because much like grapes, oysters take on the flavor of the environment they’re grown in. It’s called “merroir.” 

Other farmers just enjoy living on the coast, participating in a labor of love. By 2019, interest in oyster farming gained prevalence in North Carolina, with 106 applications for leases. 

“Obviously there are upfront costs, but once you have a barge or docking, the average oyster farmer is going to spend $25,000 to $50,000 per acre to set up, and these costs go down when you scale up,” says Matteo. Smaller farms generate profit margins of 40% to 50%, while larger ones can earn as much as 80%, he says. “For some people, the interest is in the money. For others, it’s aquaculture or conservation.” 

After North Carolina’s shellfish aquaculture bill passed the legislature unanimously in 2019, Matteo expected oyster farming to continue gaining popularity. The bill established three 50-acre shellfish leases in Pamlico Sound and facilitated enterprise areas, or ideal locations, for small oyster farms. 

Bogue Sound was poised to be the site of initial farms, but it quickly became a battleground after a shellfish grower received a lease approved by the state Division of Marine Fisheries. “Nearby homeowners in a condominium development did not like the idea of a shellfish farm within 1,200 feet of their property, mainly for view-shed reasons,” Matteo says. “That was the beginning of a coordinated effort to shut down all of Bogue Sound shellfish farming using a moratorium.” 

Not in my backyard

With a maximum lease of 10 acres, one floating cage can fit as many as 150 oysters and spans from a single to six-bag system. Within 4 acres alone, more than 4 million oysters can be harvested. Buoyed by twin floats, cages are attached by lateral lines to a main line and come outfitted with removable caps that allow a farmer to fill the floats and sink the cage. 

There’s nothing blocking water views beyond the farm. But Matteo cites a not-in-my-background, or NIMBY, mindset as the basis for North Carolina’s modern-day oyster war. Homeowners fear that their view might one day be compromised.

That opposition sparked a coordinated effort against shellfish farms that led to a moratorium in the same bill passed by lawmakers in 2019. “Now, no new leases for oyster farming can be permitted in Bogue Sound until the moratorium is lifted and any new growers cannot apply for a granted lease,” Matteo says. “At the time, there were only 16 acres in commercial production that triggered a shutdown of a 65-acre water body.” 

In addition to opposition from beach property owners, adherence to the state’s Coastal Area Management Act is also challenging for the oyster industry. Prospective shellfish farmers must go through a complicated process to secure a permit approved by the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission. Matteo recalls a shellfish farmer giving up after waiting during a four-year, back-and-forth approval process. 

“Although we are farmers, the Division of Coastal Management does not want to recognize shellfish farmers as such,” he says. “They do not want to say one way or another if we’re actually agriculture,” though industry officials consider it to be part of North Carolina’s $93 billion ag sector. He is working to gain support for the industry along with the N.C. Farm Bureau and other groups to prevent yearslong waits for applications and to block future moratoriums.

“Farm Bureau represents the farming community in this state, and we’re considered farmers. They’re very interested in things that affect shellfish growers and have been involved for many years,” he says. “For 2030, the estimate we’re hoping to achieve is a $100 million impact” when factoring the impact of shellfish dealers and restaurants.

This map shows a shellfish lease location on Money Island Bay in Carteret County.

Floating junkyards? 

 Since 2003, the North Carolina Coastal Federation’s Oyster Blueprint has served as a protection and action plan for oysters. It has restored nearly 450 acres of habitat, grown the shellfish aquaculture industry from $250,000 to $5 million, and built a coalition of nearly 25 partners. Alongside it is the Oyster Trail, a tourism marketing effort highlighting oyster farms, restaurants and conservation programs. 

Oyster farming sparks economic and environmental benefits, boosters say. But some beach dwellers say it’s too ugly.

Still, the positive PR and water filtration benefits haven’t impressed  some coastal politicians. Randall Bentley, a retired District Court judge and town commissioner in Indian Beach in Carteret County, called the farms “a floating junkyard” at a meeting last year. The few jobs created for oyster harvesting risks major job losses in the region’s tourism industry, he wrote in a letter to a local newspaper last year.

Oyster farming “could ruin permanently those sunset views on all the sounds of North Carolina,” Bentley wrote. “Then, we could try to ignore the loss of property tax dollars as people leave the sound waterways — resulting in falling real estate values for those hundreds of millions of dollars in residential homes and condominiums — on all the sounds of North Carolina.”

Atlantic Beach Mayor Trace Cooper has also criticized floating structures, calling them “industrial houseboats.” He’s a former member of the Coastal Resources Commission and a real estate developer. Other mayors, such as Sharon Harker of Beaufort and John Brodman of Pine Knoll Shores, have offered support for aquaculture. Meanwhile, development largely hinges on lease permits approved by local governments.

As of 2022, there were nearly 450 leases approved in North Carolina, totaling 2,221 acres. Research by UNC Wilmington and other institutions suggests that oyster farms lead to a higher density of adjacent wild oysters and aquatic animals, while reducing the cost of treating nitrogen for local communities by as much as $7,300 per leased acre annually.

“Wild oyster populations are severely depleted, and water quality is highly dependent on the oyster population,” Matteo says. “We’re providing ecosystem services for free that otherwise wouldn’t be occurring. Lastly, oysters are some of the most nutrient-dense forms of protein on the planet, and oyster farming is one of the greenest forms of protein production.”

 Debates over new regulations and localities’ right to enforce leases are widely viewed as a hotter topic than in 2019. The Coastal Resources Commission recently asked N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein to consider issues involving the CAMA law. Fleckenstein says it’s about achieving the right balance.

“We recognize waters are a public trust resource and there needs to be balanced use of them,” she says. “It’s a big balancing act. Environmental and economic benefits speak volumes and help create a good framework and case for the expansion of oyster farms in the state.”

by Charles Duncan on December 20, 2022 | Reprinted from Spectrum News 1

Joey Huei has been in the commercial fishing industry around the New River for 50 years. (Charles Duncan/Spectrum News 1)

The water was clear but cold in Stump Sound on a recent December Friday. Capt. Joey Huei steered the 20-foot Carolina Skiff through the shallow water between Topsail Island and the mainland. He’s been in the commercial shellfish industry in these waters around Sneads Ferry and Camp Lejeune for 50 years.

Wild oysters peek out of the mud under the water. Oyster farms, rows of cages on anchored buoys, hug the shoreline of the islands in the sound.

“It’s like a cycle, you have good years and bad years. Last year, everywhere we went there were oysters,” Huei said as he steered the boat slowly through the shallow sound. “They’re not as plentiful as they were last year.”

What You Need To Know

North Carolina’s oyster industry is growing on the coast, with both wild-caught and farm-raised oysters

Oysters are good for the economy and the environment, cleaning sea water while creating jobs

North Carolina is promoting its oyster industry with its “Oyster Trail,” with a goal to become the “Napa Valley of oysters”

People in the oyster industry said they like their oysters smoked or raw, but there are plenty of other recipes to try

“The past 50 years, I’ve seen good years and bad years. It’s just something that happens,” he said.

Huei and his son, also named Joe Huei, show how they have always fished for wild oysters with a set of long wooden tongs with metal teeth on the end. He uses the tongs to dig the oysters from the mud, dropping them on the bow of the boat.

Oysters have long been ubiquitous along the North Carolina coast. But the industry is changing as legislators and regulators in Raleigh make it easier for people to develop new oyster farms to supplement the state’s wild catch with things like crop insurance.

North Carolina’s oyster industry is growing. The state’s oyster farmers and wild oyster industry landed more than 1.2 million pounds of oysters in 2021, valued at a record $6.9 million, according to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

The annual oyster harvest in North Carolina pales in comparison to the state’s neighbor to the north. The commercial oyster industry in Virginia harvests more than double what North Carolina records, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

But North Carolina is working to bolster its oyster industry.

“Stump Sound is some excellent water. It’s very productive, produces some world-class oysters. The oysters here are just fantastic. Some people call them the Cadillac of oysters,” said Ted Wilgis, a coastal scientist with the North Carolina Coastal Foundation.

Capt. Joey Huei navigated his Carolina Skiff through the shallow waters of Stump Sound on a Friday in December. (Charles Duncan/Spectrum News 1)

“Oysters are a very important economic tool as well as ecosystem tool for North Carolina,” he said.

Oysters and other shellfish are a key part of the coastal ecosystem, filtering water and helping create an environment for other creatures in the sound.

The Coastal Federation and the state have done a lot to help protect these waters. From the boat, Wilgis points out Bermuda Island, in the sound between the mainland and Topsail Island. The small island covered in shrubby trees had been slated for development years ago, but the local community, along with Wilgis’ organization and other groups, managed to pull together to protect it.

The Nature Conservancy bought the island and gave it to the state. An old Boy Scout camp, on the mainland side of the sound, is now protected too.

Both the older and younger Hueis have been fishing these waters since they were children.

“When my grandfather was alive he said I’d seen more change in my life than he’s seen in his,” the younger Huei said. “We’ve got shopping malls and housing developments, four- or five-story apartment buildings.”

To build all that, developers have chopped down trees and graded over forests, he said.

“All that runoff has to go somewhere. All those woods used to soak up lots of water,” Joe Huei said. “That water all has to go in the ditches, it all has to go in the ponds, it all has to go somewhere. A lot of that runs into the rivers.”

“I was a commercial fisherman growing up, and my dad was. As far back as I can remember on my mom’s side, they’ve been living here and been commercial fishermen. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a commercial fisherman. We’re really deeply rooted in this area and the fishing industry,” he said.

The Hueis don’t work in the commercial fishing industry much anymore. The elder Huei had a fish house to distribute seafood until Hurricane Florence flooded much of eastern North Carolina in 2018. Since then, they’ve been working with the Coastal Federation to help clean up debris from the storm.

Cody Faison, owner of Ghost Fleet Oysters, said his favorite way to eat oysters is raw. (Charles Duncan/Spectrum News 1)

They still average about a ton of debris a day, as they have for about three and a half years. They spend their days pulling pieces of dock and other big detritus from the sounds and marshes along the coast.

Wilgis said the effort, involving several crews along the coast, has pulled more than 2.6 million pounds of trash from the water.

It’s all part of cleaning this stretch of the North Carolina coast so it will still be here for generations to come. And they still come out to fish and harvest oysters. The family marks Thanksgiving each year with an oyster roast, and they’re planning another to celebrate the new year.

‘Napa Valley of oysters’

The amount of oysters harvested each year has been going up, but Wilgis said the wild-caught harvest has been in a steady decline.

Cody and Rachel Faison, a husband and wife team, own Ghost Fleet Oysters, with their own oyster farm in the sound near Surf City.

Farming oysters is a slow, deliberate process. Talking at a boat landing overlooking the sound, Cory Faison said they get the oysters when they’re about 6mm long. They tend to them as they grow until they’re big enough to be sold to a restaurant, a distributor or direct to consumers.

“When we buy them, they generally start off at a couple cents. By the time we sell them they’re about 75 cents. But it takes about 18 months to get to that point,” he said. “This is not a get-rich-quick scheme.”

“At any one time we have hundreds of thousands of oysters in the water,” Faison said.

He said they grow their oysters so they have a deep cup on one side, perfect for laying out a dish of oysters on the half shell at any top-tier restaurant on the East Coast.

“The vast majority of these are being sold as groups of individual oysters, to restaurants and grocery stores, as individual shucking oysters. These aren’t meant for the big oyster roasts or something like that, these are more high end, they’re a higher-dollar oyster,” said Wilgis, with the Coastal Federation.

These farm-raised oysters grow near the surface of the water, getting more oxygen and nutrients that allow them to grow faster and develop their own unique taste.

Oyster farms use cages in the water column to grow oysters in Stump Sound. (Charles Duncan/Spectrum News 1)

“They put a lot of work into them. They put a crop out and it might take a year or two before they can actually harvest them,” he said.

They have a bright, salty taste, when cracking one open and eating it raw by the boat launch. The flavor is different from the wild caught oysters from the same water. The wild caught are meatier, but don’t fill the shell the same way the Ghost Fleet oysters do.

These different flavors and varieties are part of the reason behind the North Carolina Oyster Trail, a new effort to boost the state’s oyster industry. Faison will give tours of his farm to the oyster aficionados on the trail.

“You go to a restaurant, instead of just seeing Louisiana oysters, Texas oysters, North Carolina oysters, you now see North Carolina oysters representing six or seven different brands representing different tastes from different estuaries from a different grower, and that’s really the opportunity,” said Wilgis.

“A restaurant writer came down and said, ‘North Carolina could be the Napa Valley of oysters.’ And that’s really the dream we’re working towards,” he said.

How to eat oysters

Faison said his favorite way to eat oysters is raw, straight from the shell.

Father and son Joey and Joe Huei said their favorite way is smoked, preferably over wax myrtle wood.

“It gives it a unique flavor, kind of like smoking pork with mesquite,” the senior Huei said. But, he added, using oak will do if you can’t find wax myrtle.

Wilgis agreed with the Hueis, preferring his oysters smoked.

Fried oysters are another popular option in many restaurants along the coast and inland.

There are also more adventurous ways to use oysters: oysters casino, oysters Rockefeller, oyster dressing (also known as stuffing), oyster soup and others.

Mariner’s Menu, a project of North Carolina Sea Grant, has been collecting traditional seafood recipes for more than a decade. Here are a couple of recipes from the Sea Grant site for those that want to get beyond the classic oyster roast:

Oyster dressing (stuffing)

  • 2 cups oysters, drained, liquid reserved
  • 6 cups French bread, cut into small cubes
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup celery, chopped
  • 1 cup onion, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
  • 1 egg, beaten

“Preheat the oven to 375° F.

“Toast bread until golden brown. Meanwhile, melt butter in a small saucepan. Lightly sauté celery and onion. Add poultry seasoning, thyme, salt and pepper.

“Place 4 cups of bread in a large bowl. Crumble the remaining 2 cups of bread and place in a bowl. Combine with the vegetable-seasoning mix.

“Add oysters and egg and toss lightly.

“Add reserved oyster liquid until stuffing is moist, but not packed.

“Place in greased baking pan and bake, uncovered, at 375° F until done and crusty outside, about 30-40 minutes.”

Oysters Casino

  • 1 pint oysters, drained
  • 3 slices bacon, chopped
  • 4 tablespoons onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons green pepper, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons celery, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
  • ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • ⅛ teaspoon Tabasco sauce

“Preheat oven to 350° F.

“In a skillet, fry bacon until brown. Remove bacon and drain on paper towels. Discard all but 1 ½ tablespoons of bacon grease. Add onion, green pepper and celery to the skillet and sauté until tender. Remove skillet from heat and add lemon juice, salt, black pepper, Worcestershire, Tabasco and bacon and mix well.

“In a lightly greased baking dish, arrange oysters and then spread the bacon mixture on top. Bake until oysters are done and topping is brown for about 10 to 15 minutes.”

This recipe can also be done with shucked oysters in the halfshell.

Oyster soup

  • 2 pints standard oysters, undrained
  • hot water
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • ½ cup green onion tops, thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt
  • ½ white pepper, freshly ground

“Strain oyster liquid into a measuring cup. Chop oysters coarsely. Heat liquid over medium heat, add chopped oysters and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove oysters and reserve. Add hot water to the reserved liquid to make 5 cups.

“Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add flour gradually, stirring constantly until smooth. Gradually add the hot liquid, whisking constantly, and cook until smooth. Add onion, parsley, salt and pepper. Simmer for 15 minutes. Add reserved oysters and heat thoroughly. Serve immediately.”

by Alexandra Domrongchai on December 21, 2022 | Reprinted from Food & Wine

We believe that the best vacations are planned around eating, and food trails are one of the best ways to do that. Exploring a state’s regional cuisine through food trails lets you taste some of the best food that region has to offer, while also gaining a sense of its background and history. From Sonoran hot dogs in Arizona to South Carolina’s pimento cheese trail, these thirteen gourmet food trails are the coolest way to explore America.

North Carolina Oyster Trail


To protect their oysters, North Carolina went to war in the late 1800s. As a result, oyster farmers have committed themselves to maintaining the supply of oysters that are showcased on their oyster trail across the state. Check out Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham owned by James Beard Award-winning chef Ricky Moore or take a tour of Oysters Carolina at Harkers Island to explore the bounty of bivalve mollusks.

by Kathleen Squires on December 16, 2022 | Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal

Nothing says celebration like a seafood tower, and that classic extravagance is trending again just in time for your holiday party. Here’s your guide to all the gear, garnishes and gorgeous shellfish you’ll need to construct a proper show-stopper.

LET’S SEA The over-the-top extravagance of a seafood tower belies the relative ease of constructing one. Read on for pro tips from the chefs around the country putting creative spins on the classic.

IMMEDIATELY UPON entry to Deux Chats, the Art Nouveau-style bar/restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., you’re greeted with an extravagant bar-top display of crab legs, lobster claws, shrimp, oysters, clams and sunny lemons, all perched on mounds of crushed ice. In the dining room, heads turn as two-tiered seafood towers parade by. At the base of the one that landed on my table, mussels, oysters and clams nestled among seaweed tendrils, pickled vegetables and radishes. The top tier featured a kick-line of those crab legs, bright-red lobster tails and shrimp, plus pink cubes of salmon crudo garnished with wasabi caviar, and a dainty dice of tuna tartare served on scallop shells.

A display like this invariably inspires a chain reaction of copycat orders, at Deux Chats and at restaurants around the country where the classic seafood tower is this season’s towering success.

Tip: Add kosher or rock salt to keep ice fresh.

Though this sort of swanky display might not be what you’d expect to see more of as inflation soars, Deux Chats executive chef Nicole Gajadhar said she designed her tower to be “indulgent and celebratory,” with the extra flourishes of crudo and tartare, plus brioche buttons and seaweed butter, to bring it “beyond what people would normally expect.” And in Manhattan, chef Edgar Panchernikov created an exceptionally opulent tower for the launch of the Bar at Caviar Russe, a raw-bar extension of a 25-year-old restaurant. Instead of the standard tiered tower, the generous offering of oysters, shrimp, lobster, king crab, Hamachi, bluefin, sea trout, fluke and caviar sits upon a pyramid of shaved ice.

In Mr. Panchernikov’s view, this style of service seems perfectly in tune with the times. “Since the pandemic, I think people not only want to treat themselves with something special, but they are in search of sharing and community,” Mr. Panchernikov said. “The seafood tower is perfect for sharing.”

Chef Thomas Keller, too, detects a desire for social interaction in the tower’s current popularity: “This idea of sharing and nurturing each other is especially important today.” At Bouchon in Yountville and Las Vegas and the Surf Club in Miami, Mr. Keller favors a classic presentation that “stretches back generations and generations, evoking the oyster bars at Les Halles,” the late, legendary market at the heart of Paris.

Tip: If you like, ask your fishmonger to shuck the shellfish for you.

Chef Ken Oringer’s “full-on love affair” with seafood towers stems back to his time training as a cook in France. “In Paris, I loved that there’s no holding back on them,” he said. He said he has included an iteration at every restaurant he’s opened, but he acknowledged that the seafood tower is having a moment. “The seafood available right now has never been better,” he said. The tower at his newest restaurant, Faccia a Faccia in Boston, changes daily in order to respond to what’s best and freshest. It currently includes live sea urchin, live scallops, ruby red shrimp and black bass crudo in addition to the usual suspects. “From a restaurant perspective, seafood towers are good business. They sell themselves,” said Mr. Oringer. He also noted the relatively low labor involved.

At the Ordinary in Charleston, S.C., chef Mike Lata uses the tower to showcase the local catch and support the fishing trade. “Post-pandemic, we realized that our purchasing dollars could really make a difference locally,” he said. “Now 90% of our food comes from local waters.”

Chef Dean Neff of Seabird in Wilmington, N.C., sources his towers close to home, too. “It’s an opportunity for us to get people to appreciate things that are local and a little outside of the box,” he said. “We have a variety of 8-10 super-seasonal things on there.” That might include more-familiar items like local crab claws but also rarities such as ribbed wild mussels, whelks and pinshell clams. From the abundance of locally caught bluefish, mackerel and mullet, he makes smoked dips.

Tip: Serve vodka shots on the side or plant them in the tower itself.

Perhaps the classic tiered tower will forever be associated with Belle Époque-style indulgence, but that doesn’t mean it can’t evolve with the times, too. At Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles, chef Tal Ronnen offers a vegan version, initially inspired by lobster mushrooms from the Pacific Northwest. “They are grown on the coast so they are kissed with that ocean mist,” Mr. Ronnen said. “They also have a beautiful orange color and a flavor that resembles the ocean.” His tower features oyster mushrooms “Rockefeller,” smoked carrot “lox” and kelp caviar. A choice of tequila or vodka shooters makes it extra celebratory.

Shots of Goldwasser feature among the innovations on chef Ann Redding’s tower at Thai Diner in New York City. Thai nam phrik (spicy chile sauce) and tom yum (lemongrass, galangal, lime, chile) complement oysters, shrimp, crab, mussels, scallops, octopus, squid and caviar, served on ornate prayer offering platters made in Thailand.

Maybe that sounds like a tall order to pull off yourself. But a seafood tower is actually an attainable luxury to enjoy at home—low-prep, high-impact, ideal for entertaining. With the following tips, you can fashion a fabulous tower for your next party. Go ahead and invite the A-list. If you build it, they will come.

A seafood tower is an attainable luxury: low prep, high impact, ideal for entertaining.


1. Choose your tower

Nicole Gajadhar of Deux Chats advised choosing a material that is a good conductor of cold, such as metal, ceramic or glass. The platters should be deep enough to hold ice, with a lip to prevent dribbling once the ice melts. No tower? Create tiers by filling a large bowl with crushed ice. Place a medium bowl in the center of the ice in the larger bowl, and fill that bowl with ice. Continue stacking with ever smaller bowls until you have as many tiers as you need. Or, stack round, lipped trays with small bowls between to create tiers. Cake stands can work as long as the platters are lipped.

2. Make a plan

Seabird’s Dean Neff recommended drawing a map outlining what you want, thinking beyond the main elements. “Include something with crunch, such as crackers, a slaw or even raw vegetables, which can act as a palate cleanser,” Mr. Neff said. “Include something pickled and something spicy, such as horseradish or hot sauce, for brightness and balance.” Caviar Russe’s Edgar Panchernikov recommended thinking of the tower as sculpture. “Place the most luxurious items at the top and the center so that they don’t get hidden,” he said. Faccia a Faccia’s Ken Oringer thinks about what can be made ahead. “Keep it somewhat simple,” he said. “Save yourself extra work where you can.”

3. Secure ingredients

At your fishmonger, buy as many precooked and prepped items as possible: shrimp cocktail, peeled and deveined; lobster and crab, already cracked. You can even have them shuck oysters and clams. “Just ask to leave the bottom muscle attached,” said Mr. Oringer. “That way they won’t start decaying. Cover them with plastic wrap to keep them from drying out. Keep chilled until you serve, ideally the same day.” Pick up a nice gravlax or sashimi to add variety, said Mike Lata of the Ordinary. Ask for seaweed, too, to use as a decorative touch.

4. Be cool

Chill all ingredients and surfaces you will serve seafood on, Mr. Neff advised. An hour in the fridge does the trick. Ms. Gajadhar suggested crushing ice in a food processor. Or, use Mr. Panchernikov’s method “Wrap a bag of ice in a towel and smash it with a rolling pin.” Wait until the last minute to place the ice on the tower. Pro tip from Ms. Gajadhar: A little kosher salt in the ice helps it stay together as it melts.

Save yourself some fuss and buy pre-cooked lobster, crab and shrimp.

5. Place the seafood and sauces

Arrange the shellfish according to your plan. Place raw items such as tartars and ceviche, as well as dips and spreads, on plates and in ramekins. Hang the shrimp, embed the crab legs and make sure everything is easily grabbable. Shuck the oysters and clams if your fishmonger hasn’t done that, and add those last. “Place sauces in bowls or ramekins and set near ingredients they are meant to pair with,” said Mr. Panchernikov.

6. Garnish

Fill in gaps and get creative. Use seaweed, lemon wedges, herbs, decorative shells, edible flowers, even lobster heads. Stick in alcoholic shooters if you wish. Place accompaniments like blini, crackers and potato chips on the side, off the ice, so they won’t become soggy, Mr. Lata instructed. And don’t forget tools and serving utensils such as seafood picks, lobster and crab crackers, small forks, small sauce spoons and caviar spoons.

7. Pair it up and enjoy

Pop the bubbly, crack an ice-cold beer, uncork a crisp white wine or pull the vodka out of the freezer. Then raise a toast to your towering creation.

Photographs by Chelsie Craig for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Anna Billingskog, Prop Styling by Sophie Strangio

by Shivani Vora on December 14, 2022 | Reprinted from The New York Times

Ana Shellem has found peace and prosperity while searching for wild species off the North Carolina coast for her one-woman sustainable fishing company.

Ana Shellem pushing her boat off an island near Wrightsville Beach, N.C. She harvests a variety of shellfish for commercial clients along the coast. Madeline Gray for The New York Times

Six days a week, Ana Shellem rises at 5:30 a.m. and checks the tide and wind conditions for the day. Then she maps out in her mind where on the water she’ll go in search of wild mussels, clams, oysters and stone crabs. Come sunrise, she’s off.

Usually, that means hopping on her main work boat, a 14-foot catamaran skiff.

She’s at sea for three to eight hours, fishing until she gathers the exact number of critters that her 10 restaurant clients have ordered. She spends the later hours of the day hand-delivering her bounty.

Ms. Shellem, 32, has been keeping up this schedule for the last six years, Monday through Saturday. As founder and owner of Shell’em Seafood, a sustainable boutique shellfish company in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., she is fisher-, sales and businesswoman; delivery driver; and, not incidentally, conservationist.

In an industry dominated by men, Ms. Shellem’s success is rare but not unique.

Women throughout history and around the globe have always played a role in fishing, gathering and making good use of the creatures plucked from the sea. More recently, women from Rwanda and the Philippines have also taken on marine sustainability efforts, acting as watchdogs for reefs and pushing back against efforts to overfish.

Ms. Shellem pulling her boat along an oyster bed near Wrightsville Beach. “I own my equipment and am the only employee,” she said, “so the profits are all mine.” Madeline Gray for The New York Times
Ms. Shellem pulling up the anchor for her boat before going out in search of wild species to harvest. Madeline Gray for The New York Times

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted in 2020 that “women play a key role in fisheries sustainability worldwide” and that their participation in commercial fisheries appeared to be increasing in proportion to total fishing workers.

Still, the report said, women’s involvement in commercial fishing overall “remains poorly understood and largely unrecognized in various parts of the world.”

Ms. Shellem, a one-woman operation, has turned her participation into a successful business, selling around $100,000 of fresh shellfish to restaurant clients along the Carolina coast, she said. Some order as many as 600 to 2,000 pieces a week, each at 70 cents to $1.

“I own my equipment and am the only employee, so the profits are all mine,” she said.

One of her clients is Seabird, a popular spot in Wilmington. “We indicate Ana’s shellfish on our menu by name and customers seek them out for their unique taste,” said the owner and chef, Dean Neff.

Seabird serves her mussels in a stout beer broth or as a cold escabeche with leeks, fennel and chiles. Both dishes are menu favorites, Mr. Neff said.

“Her connection to the ocean is evident, and she has a following around here because people are so intrigued by what she does,” he said.

At Poole’s, an upscale diner in Raleigh, Ms. Shellem’s mussels are served in a broth with Dijon mustard, white wine, cream and herbs. And at a sister Raleigh restaurant, Death & Taxes, the oysters are grilled with chili butter and preserved chimichurri.

Ashley Christensen, the owner of Poole’s and Death & Taxes, said: “Ana’s freshness is incredible. Her shellfish is special because she pulled them from the mud herself that same day. Servers love telling her story and customers love to hear it.”

Ms. Shellem harvests in the waters six days a week. “Harvesting is illegal on Sundays in North Carolina,” she said. “Otherwise I would be out on the ocean then, too.” Madeline Gray for The New York Times
Ms. Shellem rinsing a harvest of wild mussels. Madeline Gray for The New York Times

Ms. Shellem came to her business rather unusually. A former actor and model, she joined the touring cast of the live performance Disney show “Bear and the Big Blue House” at age 12. Eventually she settled in New York, where she acted in commercials and ventured into photography. “They were gigs to pay the bills, not passions,” she said.

A photo shoot took her to Wrightsville Beach, about six miles east of Wilmington, and it turned out to be the trip that would reroute her life. “I met Jon and we began dating,” she said, referring to her husband, Jon Shellem.

Mr. Shellem, a longtime local and a co-owner of a bar, had grown up harvesting wild shellfish for his own consumption, and took his future wife on excursions to do the same. “We would be out at sea for hours and come home and enjoy these divine meals of grilled oysters with melted butter or pizza showered with clams,” Ms. Shellem said.

Coming off a decade-long battle with anorexia and bulimia, she said she discovered the pleasure of food for the first time and found independence and solitude on the water.

“There was nothing more satisfying than collecting seafood to feed myself, friends and family just hours later,” she said. “I realized that I wanted to extend my reach to more people by going into the fishing business.”

(She noted that the serendipity of her transformation extended to her married last name, which she took as the name of her business.)

Ms. Shellem cleaning wild oysters and mussels on the dock, separating her piles by client order. Madeline Gray for The New York Times

Ms. Shellem established Shell’em Seafood in 2016, soon after getting a commercial fishing license. She was criticized, she said, mainly from fishermen who didn’t take her seriously because she was a woman. “I had several tell me that they didn’t think I was strong enough to do the job and that I was wasting my time,” Ms. Shellem said.

But she persevered. Now she slips away from the boat that she and her husband call home and hits the sea day after day, later spreading her catch out on the dock and separating the bounty into piles, as ordered by each client.

In her goal of conservation and her stance against overfishing, Ms. Shellem does not harvest even one piece above what was ordered. She delivers her catch personally, riding from client to client at the end of the day in her pickup truck.

Ms. Shellem delivering a harvest of wild-caught mussels to Ryan O’Janpa, the chef at the Second Glass, a restaurant and wine bar in Wilmington, N.C. Madeline Gray for The New York Times

It’s hard work, she said, but she can’t get enough of it. “Harvesting is illegal on Sundays in North Carolina,” she noted. “Otherwise I would be out on the ocean then, too. I love it that much.”

Ms. Shellem’s commitment to sustainability caught the attention of Gov. Roy Cooper who, in August appointed her to be a commissioner for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, which promotes responsible and sustainable fishing. The commission includes one other woman, who represents the industry’s recreational side.

Shell’em Seafood is poised to expand its footprint, but Ms. Shellem has no such ambitions.

“If I start sending shellfish everywhere, it will sit on a truck for too long,” she said. “It won’t be enjoyed as it’s meant to be, which is as fresh from the water as possible and the reason why I started my business in the first place.”

Shivani Vora is a freelance journalist based in New York who often writes on trends, design, travel and interesting personalities.

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