by Allison Ballard on October 15, 2022 | Reprinted from Wilmington StarNews

Local raw oysters with accoutrements at manna restaurant in Wilmington, N.C. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO

As fans of local oysters already know, they are a delicacy that can be enjoyed year-round. That being said, it’s a big time for the bivalves. We’re in the middle of N.C. Oyster Week, and the official oyster season (which dictates the harvesting of wild oysters) begins Oct. 15 and ends in March. 

Look around and you can find oyster events, oyster specials and even oyster collaborations, like an upcoming oyster beer from Wilmington’s Mad Mole Brewing. Oysters are big in the state and poised to become even bigger. With that in mind, here’s a look some of the basics about N.C. oysters. 

The Napa Valley of bivalves

In his book “The Essential Oyster: A Salty Appreciation of Taste and Temptation,” author Rowan Jacobsen was the first to tout the relatively untapped potential of the Southeast, even saying that there was something of a renaissance in the industry happening from Virginia to Florida. Since then, those in the industry decided to build on that idea that North Carolina could be a premier spot for oyster growing and harvesting.

Initiatives like N.C, Oyster Week (Oct. 10-16) and the Oyster Trail, which highlights businesses such as markets and restaurants that serve oysters and promote the industry, are supported politically and environmentally because oysters work on several fronts. It’s good business, meets a customer demand, and is a practice that can be done sustainably to clean and nourish the local waterways. 

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

Volunteers plant saltmarsh cordgrass along the water line at Morris Landing Clean Water Preserve in Holly Ridge, N.C. in the heart of the very productive shellfish growing areas of Stump Sound. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO

“It’s a win, win, win,” said Chris Matteo, Bayboro-based oyster farmer and president of the N.C. Shellfish Growers Association. “It’s something that actually leaves the estuary better off that when we started.”

Jane Harrison, a coastal economist with North Carolina Sea Grant, said oysters have an economic impact of $27 million for the state and provide more than 500 jobs. But goals are in place to reach $100 million and 1,000 jobs by 2030. Even while wild harvest production has been decreasing in recent years and was estimated at around 50,000 bushels last year, preliminary data from 2021 show that farmed oyster production has outpaced it for the first time. Production was around 59,000 bushels, a 111% increase over 2020.

“Even a few years ago, a lot of the oysters consumed in North Carolina were imported from other places, but that is changing now,” Matteo said.

Roasted oysters at the annual North Carolina Oyster Festival, which takes place each year in Brunswick County. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO

Wild and farmed

When you’re talking about oysters on the East Coast, they’re really all the same. Species, that is. The indigenous oyster is called Crassostrea Virginica, and they are known to be briny and savory with minerality.

From there, though, there can be a lot of differences. Farmed oysters often have a different chromosome make up that makes them suitable for year-round harvest. Other differences can be a result of the salinity of the water, what algae and plankton the oysters eat, and the movement of the tide. This merroir, a sea-inspired version wine’s terroir, can help explain why Stump Sound oysters are different from those growing in nearby Topsail waters, for example.

“They can have a very diverse flavor profile,” Matteo said. “Those grown closer to the Atlantic Ocean have a higher salinity and minerality. Further inland, in waters with a mid-salinity, you see oysters that can be sweet and buttery.”

While oyster aquaculture takes place all year long, commercial fisherman must wait until the oyster season begins. Limits and site restriction are in place. But pros like Ana Shellem, of Shell’em Seafood Co., will forage and fill orders for her restaurant clients. She worked in the hospitality industry before she switched careers. Other fishermen sell to markets and distributors, or direct to customers. Breece Gahl accepts bushel pre-orders from his Wrightsville Beach-based Fresh2U Seafood business, for example.

Because of a difference in the way they develop and grow, the wild oysters are more likely those found in clusters and are the safest to eat raw when collected in the fall and winter months.

All year round

That’s not the case for all local oysters, though. These farmers say they are continually trying to get the message to consumers that mariculture oysters are safe to eat, even in months that don’t end in ‘R.’

“Always. I’m always telling people,” said Matt Schwab of Hold Fast Oyster Co. He’s been in the business about seven years with a farm in New River.

Matt Schwab, of Hold Fast Oyster Co., and Dean Neff, of Seabird restaurant, shuck oysters at Mad Mole Brewing in Wilmington for a special collaborative beer. ALLISON BALLARD/STARNEWS

At the time, there were only a handful of oyster famers working in the state. Now, there are more than 75 and the water acreage being farms has increased for a total of more than 2,100 acres in 2021, Harrison said. The new people entering the business sometimes take it on as a second (or third) career or are starting an oyster farm right after completing an aquiculture program at college, Matteo said.

Holden Davanzo was a stay-at-home mother and manager at an ice rink before she bought her cousin’s oyster business, Anchored Life Oyster Farm, three years ago.

“It was definitely a learning curve,” she said. But now, she goes out on the boat every day to tend her oysters in Stump Sound and New River.

“But I love it. I have a new appreciation for the ocean,” she said. “And it’s beautiful. I see dolphins. Sometimes I’m out there and I think ‘This is my office.'”

The business is really taking off this year, for her Top-Sea-Turvies and New’d Pirates. Although the oysters are the same species, many farmers name their selections for branding and to let customers know what they’re getting.

Holden Davanzo of Anchored Life Oyster Farm in Sneads Ferry, N.C. Photo Courtesy Anchored Life Oyster Farm

Schwab, for example, grows a variety he calls Seabirdies especially for Seabird restaurant and chef Dean Neff in downtown Wilmington. The chef and the farmer partnered with Mad Mole Brewing this Oyster Week to make a Seabirdie Oyster Gose, brewed with oysters (shells and meats), bitter orange and spiceberry.

Others new to oystering are James and Sarah Rushing Doss, of the newly renamed Rx Chicken & Oyster restaurant in Wilmington. They’re growing their own oysters, named after their dogs, with the help of James Hargrove and Middle Sound Mariculture, for when the restaurant reopens later this year. By the way, the couple also have their commercial fishing and dealer’s licenses, so they can serve fish they catch and spear themselves, including the invasive lionfish.

James and Sarah Rushing Doss of the newly renamed Rx Chicken & Oysters restaurant, have started their own oyster farm with the help of Middle Sound Mariculture. Photo Courtesy Rx Chicken & Oysters

The business isn’t an easy one, Harrison said. Oyster growers and harvesters have to deal with hurricanes and subsequent closures due to water quality concerns, as well as loss of product. She also said that it cost as estimated $20,000 per acre to start an oyster farm. But it’s encouraging to see a new generation of people entering the business.

“There’s definitely a demand,” Harrison said. “People want local seafood.”

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

by Anne Tate on October 5, 2022 | Reprinted from RAL Today

Local chefs Ashley Christensen, Coleen Speaks, Joe Rohrer + Sunny Gerhartweigh in on NC’s best oysters.

St. Roch’s daily oyster happy hour is from 4-6 P.M. (and all day tuesday). Photo courtesy of St. Roch’s Fine Oysters + Bar

Shell yeah — wild oysters are harvested along coastal NC from mid-October to the end of March, so that means it’s almost prime oyster season in Raleigh. We’re here to share pearls of wisdom from local chefs Ashley Christensen (AC Restaurants), Coleen Speaks (Hummingbird), Joe Rohrer (42nd St. Oyster Bar) + Sunny Gerhart (St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar)about what oysters to look out for around the City of Oaks.

“I think all NC oysters have unique qualities and really different, wonderful flavors, each truly telling of the specific waters and coastal environments from which they are harvested or cultivated,” Chef Ashley told RALtoday. “As long as they are fresh and skillfully shucked, you can’t go wrong.”

DYK that there is just one type of oyster found in NC? However, Crassostrea Viginica, AKA Eastern oysters, come in hundreds of varieties. Here are some of our local chefs’ favorites.

Chef recommendations

Core SounderLocals Seafood | A deep-cupped oyster of medium salinity with a sweet, slightly creamy finish. These highly recommended, cultivated oysters are available year-round.

Dukes of Topsail SoundN. Sea. Oyster Co. | “They are briny, plump, perfectly manicured oysters that remind me of swimming in the salty ocean,” Chef Sunny said. “They have an incredibly sweet, almost scallop-like flavor.”

Green GillLocals Seafood | Core Sounders sometimes get a specific microalgae bloom that gives them a blue-green tint. “It adds depth to their already great flavor,” Chef Joe said. Look for them in January and February.

Masonboro WildsShell’em Seafood Co. | “These oysters are hand harvested and selected in the wild, and they are deliciously briny due to their proximity to the jetty,” Chef Ashley said. “They have a nice deep cup and a silky firm texture.”

Tarheel TiderunnersLocals Seafood | These briny, buttery, and meaty oysters are grown in the Stump Sound and are available year-round.

Where to find them

Now you know what to look for when you’re at one of these six oyster hot spots.

How to eat them

First try the oyster raw, without anything added,” Chef Ashley said. “This is the purest way to taste what makes that oyster special, and to experience its definitive characteristics.”

“I love a lightly roasted oyster over coals served with a seasonal spicy mignonette,” Chef Coleen said.

Turning appetite into agritourism.

by Carrie Honaker on September 25, 2022 | Reprinted from Southern Living

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Oysters tell stories. The narrative begins as each is pried open, shucked from its shell, and slid into a waiting mouth. There, you’ll taste hints of where it grew, how many times the farmer touched and tumbled it, the salinity of the water, food consumed, weather endured. All of it’s there, the story of the farmer, their life, their home, and the hours on the water tending their crop.

Oyster trails, a new leg of culinary travel, invite visitors to learn about the deep history of these rural, coastal communities, see working oyster farms, and sample the briny bivalves at restaurants who support them.

North Carolina Oyster Trail

In 2020, the North Carolina Oyster Trail launched, offering up farm tours, “voluntourism” activities to protect oyster habitats, and tasting opportunities. “Our interactive map shows options to visit seafood restaurants serving local oysters and oyster farm tours to see how North Carolina oysters are grown,” says Dr. Jane Harrison, coastal economics specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant. “You can visit an education organization like North Carolina Coastal Federation that’s dedicated to protecting and restoring our coastal environment. The oyster trail isn’t just about eating oysters—although that’s one of my favorite parts—there’s an ocean of possibilities.”

At Down East Mariculture, a mosaic mural by local artist LaNelle Davis adorns the side of the once condemned Willis Brothers Seafood building. The mural (based on a photograph) shows Lula Willis Fulcher, Rena Wade Piner, and Lela Thomas opening clams back in the 1950s. Davis hand-cut dishes contributed by families who worked at the clam house, and the shells on the wall were excavated from the property grounds.

The artwork embodies the deep history of Down East, a rural area once an economic hub. “When visitors stop here, I talk to them about the history of seafood processed here as early as 1939. Elmer Willis was ahead of his time—he received food science awards from NC State, provided all the clams for Heinz Soup and Campbell’s clam chowders after World War II. He was also one of the first to start blast freezing individual frozen food items, opening a whole new market. We have remnants of the liquid nitrogen room still onsite,” says Susan Hill, co-owner of Down East Mariculture.

Stops like Ghost Fleet Oyster Co. offer sunset boating excursions out to the farm augmented by sea stories about the historical importance of oysters to the coastal environment. “It’s a self-guided adventure that can go in 100 different directions. We talk about gear types, the challenges of oyster farming, how different salinities create flavors. We talk about merroir. We educate visitors to feel confident they have all the tools for a full oyster experience when they arrive at a restaurant on the trail,” says Cody Faison of Ghost Fleet Oyster Co.

The next stop could be PinPoint in Wilmington to sample what Chef Cameron Garvey cooks up with the Faison’s oysters, like the peach basil mignonette made with a white peach sour from a local brewery, or the baked oysters with pepper jelly, braised pork belly, and corn bread crumb. “During the lineup every day, I’ll pop a couple oysters so I can relate the tasting notes, size, shape, anything that helps servers talk to customers about them,” Garvey said.

Oyster plate at Seabird in Wilmington, N.C. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BAXTER MILLER

And if you happen to be there during Green Gill season, you’re in for a geographically rare treat. Oysters with green gills only happen in two places in the world: North Carolina and the clay ponds in Marennes-Oléron, France. Haslea osteria algae creates a vibrant gill in French fines de claires, and for a short period of colder months, that same delicate color occurs in some North Carolina oysters.

James Beard Foundation-nominated Chef Dean Neff at Seabird in Wilmington wants to give guests an experience, “…of where we live though oysters and some of the ingredients we put into the sauces, making it unique, but also familiar and accessible.” Neff serves the bivalves with a Champagne mignonette he augments with local, seasonal ingredients like green coriander from a farmer in Southport. He also crafts a cocktail sauce with a fermented pepper mash sambal that, depending on seasons, includes fruit like loquat, peach, or even plum.

Chef Neff ensures servers at Seabird are equipped to talk about the provenance of the oysters on the menu. Neff elaborated, “These farmers walk in the door, sometimes in the middle of service, right off of their lease with bags of oysters that were in the water hours before. That is exactly what oysters are supposed to be, a time capsule of the environment, pulled directly from the ocean, brought here for people to experience that specific location with its tides, amount of rainfall, husbandry. You know what you’re eating, where it’s coming from, who farmed them, and see that progression—it makes eating the oysters more meaningful.”

Virginia Oyster Trail

One state north, Virginia’s Oyster Trail features stops like Big Island Aquaculture in Hayes where visitors hear the history of Guinea Watermen, learn about the waterways, and handle the gear in between bites of raw and chargrilled oysters. Or you can opt for an experience organized around pairing local beer or wine and curated oyster preparations at restaurant trail stops through Taste Tidewater.

Spot local fisherman on the water. PHOTO: GABRIELA HERMAN

Virginia’s trail, the first in the Southeast, highlights the rural coastal communities through farm tours, lodging, outdoor adventure, art, and restaurants devoted to Virginia oysters. “We want to educate people about how important oysters are to our environment. For the Chesapeake Bay, every oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day, removing the excess nitrates, and helping to improve the water quality,” says Bruce Vogt, Virginia Oyster Trail President.

A unique aspect of this trail is the established tasting regions. Researchers from Virginia Tech University sampled oysters all over the state and identified tasting profiles for the eight coastal regions, much like wine terroir. Flavors range from mellow and buttery, to salty, to slight minerality, to sweet.

Georgia Oyster Trail

Moving south, Georgia is set to launch their Georgia Grown Trail 17 in fall 2022. This trail adds Gullah Geechee heritage to the oyster experience as it travels through the congressionally-designated national heritage corridor across farm tours, restaurants, and cultural hubs like the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum and Nature Center. According to Gullah Geechee Scholar and Trail President Dr. Patrick Holladay, the oyster trail will amplify Georgia’s sustainable seafood industry, as well as educate visitors on the concept of environmental stewardship, and the historic foodways of its coastal communities.

Soon visitors can explore historic seafood regions like Harris Neck and see family farms like E.L Mcintosh & Sons where generations have worked the water. They put the first farmed oysters in Georgia water in 2018. You may recognize Earnest Mcintosh Sr. from an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Savannah native and James Beard Award winning chef Mashama Bailey spent time on the oyster farm exploring the legacies of African Americans in the Lowcountry.

“When you talk about a food system, you’re talking about people’s livelihoods, and understanding where food comes,” Holladay says.

Oyster trails provide a window into life along the Southeastern coast and an opportunity to sample the bounty produced by farms, artists, chefs, and Mother Nature.

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

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

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

WHERE HAVE ALL THE OYSTERS GONE?

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

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

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

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

CONSERVING A SPECIES AND BOOSTING AN INDUSTRY

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine McGlade, Slash Creek Oyster Farm.

THE NC OYSTER TRAIL

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

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

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

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

Oysters Carolina offers tours of their Carteret County farm.

TOUR A WORKING SHELLFISH FARM

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

Slash Creek Oyster Farm (Hatteras Island)

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

Roysters NC (Beaufort)

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

Middle Sound Mariculture (Hampstead)

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

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

SAVOR THE COAST’S DISTINCT FLAVORS AT MARKETS AND RESTAURANTS

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

Locals Seafood (Durham and Raleigh)

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

Native Prime Provisions (Cashiers)

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

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

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

Oysters Carolina (New Bern)

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

Wrightsville Beach Brewery (Wilmington)

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

A delicacy at Wrightsville Beach Brewery.

Ocracoke Oyster Company (Ocracoke)

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

Parley’s Sip & Steam (Washington)

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

Saltbox Seafood Joint (Durham)

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

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

DISCOVER LOCAL OYSTER LORE AND ADVENTURE

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

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

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

North Carolina Estuarium (Washington)

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

Science by the Sea (Beaufort)

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

North Carolina Estuarium, an environmental education center in Washington.

SHELLEBRATE: NORTH CAROLINA OYSTER WEEK

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

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

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

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

The NC Oyster Trail

Seafood in Coastwatch

More about seafood from North Carolina Sea Grant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One might say the world is her oyster.

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

FARM FRESH: GETTING TO THE MEAT OF SOUTHERN OYSTER FARMS

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

Photo by Justin Kase Conder / JKase.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Justin Kase Conder / JKase.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cape Fear Oyster company near Wilmington. Courtesy Scott Burrell.

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

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

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

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

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

Saving a species

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

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

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

An oyster from Roysters NC. Courtesy Roy Emerson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Educating the public

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing environmental benefit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many consider program a win-win.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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