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.”  

NC Oyster Tour/Tasting

Straight from the Source on the NC Oyster Trail

It’s the perfect time of year for a coastal culinary adventure!

ABCDs of Shellfish Farm Tours

As the days warm, it’s time to try a N.C. shellfish farm tour!

Because these tours are offered by boat and on land, you have many options to choose from.

Consider which tour is best for you by visiting our map tool at NCOysterTrail.org/map and selecting the category ‘Shellfish Farm Tours’.

Don’t know where to start? Consider some of the following fabulous tours below!

What is the N.C. Oyster Trail? And where are the Wilmington-area stops?

by Allison Ballard on April 25, 2022 | Reprinted from Wilmington StarNews

North Carolina loves its oysters. The aquaculture industry in the state is worth an estimated $30 million – and there are those who’d like to see that number grow to $100 million by 2030, despite some of the challenges the industry faces like habitat loss and a decline in some oyster populations. 

One of the recent efforts to help was the creation of the N.C. Oyster Trail. Three local groups, the N.C. Coastal Federation, N.C. Sea Grant and the state’s shellfish growers association, partnered for the project and compiled a list of businesses, educational centers and events from across the state to boost oyster tourism. 

The idea is to help people learn where they can eat oysters, tour a shellfish farm, or even volunteer to support the industry. But what does that look like in Southeastern North Carolina? Here are some of the places on the map in Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties.   

Rusty Hooks Dockside Grill at 4907 Fish Factory Rd, Southport N.C. on April 20,2022.
Rusty Hooks Dockside Grill at 4907 Fish Factory Rd, Southport N.C. on April 20, 2022. ALLISON BALLARD/STARNEWS

Oyster-friendly restaurants 

Twenty-four eateries across the state are on the Oyster Trail. And a good percentage of them, 10, are located in the area. All of them are known for serving local oysters. At Brunswick County’s Rusty Hooks Dockside Grill (4907 Fish Factory Road in Southport) you can watch the boats come and go on the Intracoastal Waterway as you enjoy the local seafood.

Although the locally based Shuckin’ Shack has locations in Wilmington, Leland and Carolina Beach, it’s the Surf City restaurant in Pender County that was singled out for the Oyster Trail. Look for more than eight varieties of oysters daily on their menu, several of which are always from North Carolina waters. It’s at 13460 N.C Hwy 50.

In the Porters Neck area, Tidewater Oyster Bar at 8211 Market St. offers various farm-raised oysters year-round. And in Ogden, the menu Catch Restaurant from chef/owner Keith Rhodes at 6623 Market St. has a variety of local seafood, including oysters and other shellfish.

There’s also Coquina Fishbar at 890 Town Center Drive at Mayfaire in Wilmington. Oysters pop up in several menu items, from raw and baked to salads and sandwiches. Wrightsville Beach Brewery (6201 Oleander Drive, Wilmington) is committed to serving sustainable seafood and is also known for their classic dark beer, the Oysterman Stout. 

In downtown Wilmington, PinPoint Restaurant at 114 Market St. offers oysters year round and their Monday night special, with half-price oysters and wine, has become especially popular.

N.C. oysters on the half shell at PinPoint Restaurant at 114 Market St. in downtown Wilmington.
N.C. oysters on the half shell at PinPoint Restuarant at 114 Market St. in downtown Wilmington. ALLISION BALLARD/STARNEWS

Seabird (1 South Front St.) serves a variety that’s grown especially for the restaurant, and also hosts regular oyster specials. There’s also Three10 restaurant at 1022 N. 4th St. in the Brooklyn Art District.

Seaview Crab Company Kitchen & Deli at 1515 Marstellar St. takes the seafood from their market and makes dishes that can be picked up to eat at home, or enjoyed at their outdoor seating area.

Chef Brandon Stark at Seaview Crab Co. Kitchen & Deli. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO
Chef Brandon Stark at Seaview Crab Co. Kitchen & Deli. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS

Markets and more

Speaking of Seaview Crab Company, five locations (including the one on Marstellar St.) are also on the N.C. Oyster Trail. Others include 580 River Road SE in Belville, and Wilmington markets at 6458 Carolina Beach Road, 2009 Castle Hayne Road, and 6250 Market St. Look for varieties of cultured and wild oysters and oyster shell recycling containers where you can drop off your shells. 

Seaview Crab Company. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO
Seaview Crab Company. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS

Carolina Beach Oyster Co. sells CB Salts and will deliver them to your door if you live near its North Topsail Beach location. The N. SEA. Oyster Co. is in the process of expanding to a larger production facility it calls The Oyster Barn at 674 Old Landing Road in Hampstead. They sells their oysters at the Wilmington Farmers Market on Saturdays, which is located at Tidal Creek Co-op.

Soundside Oyster Farms offers oyster delivery of bags of 50 or more oysters year round. It’s available throughout the week in the Wilmington area. They’re at 2029 Watts Landing Road, Hampstead. 

Local oysters at an oyster roast in Wilmington, N.C.
Local oysters at an oyster roast in Wilmington, N.C. ALLISON BALLARD/STARNEWS

Take a farm tour

Cape Fear Oyster Company, at 2204 Scotts Hill Loop Road in Wilmington, offers chartered boat tours and educational trips to oyster farms.  Ghost Fleet Oyster Company in Hampstead farms oysters in Topsail Sound. It can also arrange a sunset cruises and boat tours with a stop at a local restaurant. 

Middle Sound Mariculture grows oysters in Masonboro, Stump and Topsail sounds. Take a farm tour and then buy some of their oysters direct.

Allison Ballard is the food and dining reporter at the StarNews. You can reach her at aballard@gannett.com.

by Amy Beth Wright on January 12, 2022 | Reprinted from StyleBlueprint

Explore the North Carolina Oyster Trail — a celebration of the region’s oyster farms, oyster bars, gourmet markets, and more — and take a closer look at 10 must-visit stops along the way!

Ideal for hobby culinary travelers and oyster lovers alike, North Carolina’s Oyster Trail is a unique network of oyster farms, oyster bars, gourmet markets, seafood and oyster festivals, conservation and education organizations like the North Carolina Aquarium, and — delectably — many restaurants featuring farmed North Carolina oysters on the menu.

North Carolina’s farmed oysters, celebrated on the oyster trail, are infused with freshness and salinity, and offer myriad environmental and economic benefits. Jane Harrison, a coastal economics specialist with the North Carolina Sea Grant, explains that oysters filter water, improve water quality, and provide a food supply for humans and other animals. And, because wild oyster reefs protect the coastline from erosion and are habitats for spawning fish and crustaceans, the increased popularity of farmed oysters allows wild oyster reefs to benefit from protection and restoration. Oyster farming also economically sustains coastal fishing communities that currently face a diminished supply of wild seafood to harvest.

Sounds like an absolute win-win to us! While the North Carolina Oyster Trail has a wide variety of stops along the way, we’re focusing on our favorite travel activity: eating. Below, 10 North Carolina chefs and restaurateurs share their unique oyster preparations, from fried to raw to nestled at the bottom of a shooter. Perspective about the trail’s importance from North Carolina chefs and sommeliers “filters” throughout!

North Carolina’s oyster trail pays homage to this tasty delicacy. Image: Amy Beth Wright
Working oyster farms like this one are found along the NC Oyster Trail. Image: Amy Beth Wright

Blue Water Grill and Raw Bar | Manteo, NC

Blue Water Grill seeks out “as many local farm-raised oysters as we can find,” says sous chef Tim Gard, who sources from Savage Inlet in Nags Head, Devil Shoals on Ocracoke Island, and Slash Creek Oyster Company, Hatteras Salts, and Sticky Bottom Oyster Co. on Hatteras Island. A colorful oyster shooter is a house signature, the oyster layered with lemon horseradish sauce, cucumber puree, vodka, and Bloody Mary mix. Tim describes the trail as a powerful resource. “If we can show our customers how important this is and what a treat it is, hopefully we can spread that enthusiasm to other areas and other industries, improving not only the quality of our product, but the local economy as well.”

The oyster shooter at Blue Water Grill is a sight to behold. Image: Blue Water Grill

Howard’s Pub & Raw Bar | Ocracoke Island, NC

Ann Warner has owned Howard’s Pub, a seasonal restaurant on Ocracoke Island, for 32 years. She describes Ocracoke Pamlico Sound oysters as “plump, juicy, salty, and delectable.” Howard’s Pub serves oysters raw and steamed on the half shell, and a popular Oysters Rockefeller features creamy spinach, bacon, and melted cheese. At the bar, an oyster shooter is prepared with chilled vodka or cold draft beer, hot sauces, and a little spice and comes in a souvenir glass. Ann notes that oysters contribute positively to “our economy, health, and wellbeing.”

Next time you’re in Ocracoke Island, NC, stop into Howard’s Pub for some fresh oysters on the half shell. Image: Howard’s Pub

JK’s Restaurant | Kill Devil Hills, NC

Spurgeon Stowe, owner and oyster farmer at Slash Creek Oyster Company on Cape Hatteras, often hand delivers oysters 60 miles north to JK’s, an Outer Banks mainstay known for unparalleled 30-day house-aged steaks. JK’s sommelier, Dennis Perry, recommends a white wine that has body, like a barrel-aged, buttery chardonnay, to complement the Baked Oysters Rockefeller, which features spinach walnut pesto and Parmesan cheese. For raw oysters, he suggests that any dry champagne is a wonderful complement. Wines from Chablis as well as Muscadet, which Dennis describes as “dry, high acid, lean, and austere,” cut through the salinity, achieving the same effect as a squeeze of lemon.

Spurgeon or his wife and business partner, Katherine McGlade, will take visitors (call ahead to book) onto the water for a peek into the submerged white boxes sheltering thousands of burgeoning oyster seeds, and the floating bags incubating growing oysters destined for the premium half-shell market.

Oysters at JK’s come from Slash Creek Oyster Company on Cape Hatteras they are fresh and incredibly tasty! Image: Dennis Perry
Bags of oysters from Slash Creek Oyster Company waiting to be enjoyed. Image: Amy Beth Wright

PinPoint | Wilmington, NC

On its raw oyster menu, PinPoint features Tarheel Tiderunners and Soundside Salts from Stump Sound on Topsail Island, and Dukes from N. SEA. Oyster Co., on the Topsail Sound. All are served with crackers, cocktail sauce, and an apple and ginger mignonette. An NC Oysters Steamed Buns appetizer features buttermilk fried oysters with local lettuces, beet and carrot slaw, and creamy sunchoke vinaigrette. And, pork belly and pepper jelly oysters are baked with lemon cornbread crumbs, white wine, and Parmesan.

The raw oyster menu at PinPoint is a must-try for oyster lovers! Image: PinPoint

Saltbox Seafood Joint | Durham, NC

Defined by his commitment to fresh, local seafood, Chef Ricky Moore sources oysters from Ryan Bethea’s Oysters Carolina, on Harker’s Island in the Outer Banks. Ryan is quoted within North Carolina’s Oyster Blueprint, the long-term statewide vision behind the Oyster Trail, as saying, “People just need to be educated that they’re safe,” noting oyster farming has no environmental detriments.

Chef Ricky’s shucked oysters are from Mattamuskeet Seafoods, discovered on one of Moore’s many journeys to the coast in search of briny, plump oysters in a nicely framed shell, with clear “oyster liquor.” He recommends Saltbox‘s Oysters Piccatta with Prosecco, and appreciates the trail’s focus on educating consumers about why it’s important to buy and eat local oysters, noting that awareness “kickstarts consumer confidence.”

Saltbox Seafood Joint is a humble establishment with a menu that is anything but. Image: Baxter Miller
The presentation is just as decadent as the main feature. Image: Baxter Miller

Seabird | Wilmington, NC

Seabird, helmed by James Beard Foundation-nominated chef Dean Neff, is a restaurant and oyster bar in a historic building near the Wilmington Riverwalk. Raw oysters include Dukes from N. Sea Oyster Co., a high-salinity oyster that Dean describes as “impossibly more perfect in January and February, as the gills become green,” and a medium-low salinity oyster from Seabirdie Holdfast Oyster Company cultivated in Stones Bay in Sneads Ferry, North Carolina. Permuda Petites from Three Little Spats Oyster Company (whose oystering roots date from the 1800s) are farmed in Stump Sound, between Topsail Island and Permuda Island.

Chef Dean describes these as having “super balanced buttery salinity,” with tasting notes of seagrass, sea bean, iron, and umami. In addition to lemon, hot sauce, champagne mignonette, and saltines, a house sambal cocktail sauce is made with locally grown aji dulce, cayenne, padron, biquinho, or Trinidad Perfume peppers, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass. A Muscadet like Oysterman, from France’s Loire Valley, is recommended. Oyster farming “not only brings a new and sustainable industry,” says Dean, “but also brings awareness to water quality issues and the importance of preserving our pristine coastline.”

Oysters in their natural state at Seabird come with a variety of accoutrements for a full flavor experience. Image: Andrew Sherman

Sea Level NC | Charlotte, NC

For Sea Level NC, restaurateur Paul Manley prizes rounded oysters with “a solid upper shell, no boring sponge or crumbly hinge, a deep cup, uniform size from good sorting habits, a good chipped lid for smooth slurping, freshness, and a great meat-to shell-ratio, indicating they’ve not been harvested too soon.” At happy hour, Sea Level Salts are available for $1 per oyster, sourced primarily from Morris Family Farms in Sea Level. Paul’s companion restaurant in Charlotte’s South End neighborhood, The Waterman Fish Bar, offers a similar special.

Sea Level NC in Charlotte features pristine oysters for the slurping. Image: Sea Level NC

Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar | Surf City, NC

Shuckin’ Shack owners Jason and Beverly Simas source local oysters broadly, from Three Little Spats Oyster Company, Ghost Fleet Oyster Company in Hampstead, Middle Sound Mariculture in Wilmington, and many others. They look for “steamers,” which have roughly a three-inch shell and plump meat, and a 2.5-inch oyster for the raw menu with clear and plentiful brine, a shell with a “nice deep cup,” and medium-high salinity.

Chargrilled oysters are placed on an open-flame grill with added melted garlic butter, chopped cooked bacon, jalapeno cheddar or Parmesan, and fresh scallions. Pair them with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that is “bright with vivid aroma and zesty acidity.” Shuckin’ Shack is on the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch Committed List, and partners with the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition. The Simas recycle all shells and appreciate the trail as a means of informing the public about how invaluable oyster farming is to local waters.

In addition to oysters, you can enjoy a tasty lobster dinner at Shuckin’ Shack. Image: Shuckin’ Shack

St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar | Raleigh, NC

Here, the world is the oyster, and chef and owner Sunny Gerhart’s New Orleans roots guide the menu. Raw oysters come with fried saltines, a house mignonette, horseradish, Tabasco, and house-pickled banana peppers. On the raw menu are two high-salinity oysters from the North River area in eastern North Carolina, plump “Beaufort Brinys” and petite Sea Cups. Also find Slash Creek Oysters, Carolina Dreams from Stump Sound, and Core Sounders, a medium-salinity oyster.

The Tchoupitoulas Street Special is a showstopper, with 18 “shucker’s choice” oysters, peel ‘n eat NC shrimp, and blue crab claws. St. Roch’s Roasted Oysters are served “BBQ’d, pimento’d, garlic butter’d, or crawfish’d.” For brunch, the Fried Oyster Hotcake comes with sunny eggs, crispy chili, creole cane syrup, whipped ricotta, and chives.

St. Roch’s roasted oysters are explosively flavorful! Image: Anna Routh Barzin

Wrightsville Beach Brewery | Wrightsville, NC

Owner, brewer, and “head oyster shucker” Jud Watkins grew up oystering with his father and grandfather, and as a result, Wrightsville Beach Brewery is committed to sustainability and environmental protection. In addition to po’boy sandwiches, pizza, and a Caprese salad, the brewery features Shell’em Seafood’s wild harvest singles in a special “Redneck Rockafella” dish with house-made pimento cheese, North Carolina collards, and bacon. Fried Oyster Bites are served over kimchi-spiced collards; both pair well with a medium-bodied beer like the brewery’s Airlie Amber Ale or Coastal Honey Lager.

Oysters over greens at Wrightsville Beach Brewery offer a decidedly Southern twist on this delicacy. Image: Wrightsville Beach Brewery

Happy trails!

by John Griffin on June 28, 2021 | Reprinted from The Outer Banks of North Carolina

Oysters are delicious. I like them raw, steamed, roasted, and fried. But delicious isn’t the only attribute that makes them amazing. Oysters are a keystone species which provides an ecosystem for many kinds of fish and plants by creating and maintaining reef habitat. In addition, each oyster filters 50-60 gallons of water every day, contributing to improved water quality. 

North Carolina’s shellfish industry generates $27 million annually to the state’s economy and employs 532 North Carolinians. Just over half of that value comes from farmed oysters. And unlike wild caught oysters, farmed are available throughout the entire year. And if you’re wondering, I eat them all – wild and farmed oysters are both yummy.

In 2020, those who know oysters to be amazing – folks like myself – worked together to launch the NC Oyster Trail. The Trail is administered by North Carolina Sea Grant and North Carolina Coastal Federation in partnership with the NC Shellfish Growers Association and copious oyster lovers and volunteers. It offers unique tourism experiences centered on our state’s tasty oysters. Along the Trail, you will find oyster farm tours; restaurants and markets that sell N.C. oysters; artists that make art with oyster shells; and aquariums, museums and educational centers where you can learn pretty much everything about my favorite North Carolina mollusk – you guessed it, the oyster.

In the Outer Banks we have five oyster farms featured on the Trail: Cape Hatteras Oyster CompanySlash Creek Oysters, and Sticky Bottom Oysters on Hatteras Island; and Savage Inlet Oysters just south of Nags Head; Ocracoke Mariculture on Ocracoke Island. Some farms offer tours on boats to see their operations while others sell to local restaurants and direct to oyster eaters.

Restaurants on the NC Oyster Trail in our area include Blue Water Grill & Raw Bar in Manteo; The Froggy Dog Restaurant & Pub in Avon; and Flying Melon Café, Howard’s Pub & Raw Bar, Plum Pointe Kitchen, and Ocracoke Oyster Company on Ocracoke Island. They offer oysters prepared creatively every day and serve both wild-caught and farmed oysters. Travelers between Hatteras and Ocracoke Village now have two choices to reach their destination, the express passenger ferry or car ferry. Ferry schedules and more information can be found here

Additional organizations on the NC Oyster Trail include the Dare County Arts Council, with supported artists that incorporate oysters and other ocean and marine themes in their art. Outer Banks Adventures will traverse along shallow waters on their airboat and tour active oyster beds and oyster reefs. North Carolina Coastal Federation hosts an oyster farm demonstration and living shorelines site in Wanchese. Here you can also learn more important tips to care for North Carolina’s coast and marine environment. At Hatteras Island Ocean Center you will find oyster exhibits, have the opportunity to experience the wetlands and coastal forest by launching a kayak, or even attend special coast related programs and events.

Visit the Trail’s website (NCOysterTrail.org) to discover more oyster adventures. You can plan a whole day around oysters or enjoy just a few hours – take an oyster tour, have a wonderful meal, or buy oysters to prepare at home. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find North Carolina oysters to be delicious – buttery, creamy, sweet, salty, zesty. They draw their unique flavors from our coastal environment, producing a taste that can’t be beat.

© 2022 NC Oyster Trail.