by Sam Jones on October 18, 2023 | Reprinted from NC State CALS Magazine

From the salty breeze of the Outer Banks to the winding undulations of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a new food trail is introducing people to a rather misunderstood creature: the eastern oyster.

Staff at Ghost Fleet Oyster Co. provide a unique educational experience. Photo by Justin Kase Conder.

In the spring of 2020, North Carolina Jane Harrison, a coastal economist on the North Carolina Sea Grant extension team, launched the NC Oyster Trail, a grassroots network of oyster growers and fishers; seafood markets, restaurants and festivals; environmental education centers; and conservation organizations. The trail has grown to encompass 80 sites offering memorable experiences for foodies and farm fanatics of all kinds. 

Harrison wears a few hats—she is an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and a graduate faculty member in the College of Natural Resources. Her primary position is as coastal economics extension specialist for NC Sea Grant, where she repeatedly heard from shellfish growers about the need for more consumer awareness of their tasty bivalves. 

“Some of my agribusiness students have tried their hand at growing oysters,” Harrison says. “Oyster farmers have stepped up to the plate to grow shellfish with innovative marine aquaculture technologies, providing a truly sustainable protein.” 

“The NC Oyster Trail is about changing our culture, one oyster at a time.” 

Despite their environmental benefits, Harrison says oysters are not the No.1 seafood that people choose. Shrimp and salmon are still the most popular choices. 

For those unfamiliar with oysters, or maybe even wary of them, consider these salty jewels an adventure for your taste buds. Oysters possess their own distinct flavors, known as “merroir,” derived from the unique aquatic environments in which they are grown. Some oysters might have a savory umami taste while others have a mineral flavor. They can be rich or light, and their saltiness varies widely. 

Despite these qualities, Harrison has found that many people are still unsure about when to eat oysters, how to prepare them, and whether or not they’re safe to eat. She sees the NC Oyster Trail as a critical educational tool for consumers and policymakers. 

To ensure the NC Oyster Trail would be successful, Harrison conducted a market demand study led by Whitney Knollenberg, an associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. Feedback from over 1,000 coastal visitors and local seafood consumers helped determine the level of potential interest in an oyster trail. Harrison and her colleagues used the results to map out a trail with a variety of family-friendly opportunities to help ease oyster skeptics into the wonderful world of life on the half shell. 

“Our study showed a high demand for seafood educational experiences, especially for shellfish farm tours,” Harrison says. 

Graphic by Patty Mercer

According to their study, the average willingness to pay for an oyster farm tour was $150 per person. Whether booking a private boat tour in Topsail Sound or ordering a dozen fried oysters for happy hour in Raleigh, visitors to the NC Oyster Trail are part of the seafood industry’s $300 million annual contribution to the state’s economy. That significant economic impact comes with positive environmental impacts as well.

“People really do want to understand how oysters are grown and their role in the coastal ecosystem,” Harrison says.

Wild oysters provide many ecosystem services as a keystone species. An individual oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, which greatly improves water quality. They also supply food for other marine organisms and provide spawning habitat for juvenile fish and crustaceans. However, their numbers have been decimated over the years due to overharvesting and environmental degradation.

The NC Oyster Trail works to counterbalance this pressure on wild oysters by promoting the consumption of farmed oysters. Some sites on the trail showcase living shorelines made from recycled oyster shells that create new wild oyster habitat and protect coastal land from hurricanes. The NC Oyster Trail offers boat and kayak tours of conservation projects as well as volunteer opportunities to help restore damaged environments.

Graphic by Patty Mercer

“The NC Oyster Trail is about changing our culture, one oyster at a time,” says Cody Faison, co-owner of Ghost Fleet Oyster Co., which offers customized oyster farm tours in Hampstead.

Three years into running the NC Oyster Trail, Harrison’s ongoing surveys have found that nearly 90% of visitors are satisfied with their experience. Another sign of success: Farmed oysters now represent more than half of all the oysters consumed in North Carolina.

“We want those who depend on the coastal environment for their livelihood to be successful,” Harrison says. “Especially in our coastal communities, working on the water is a heritage. It’s a part of North Carolina’s history. Being able to sustain and evolve these practices is critical to maintaining our culture, for our sense of self and identity.”

For more information about the NC Oyster Trail, visit

by Amneris Solano on October 5, 2023 | Reprinted from Kenan Fellows

BOLIVIA, N.C.⸺On a sweltering summer day in mid-July, high school earth environmental science teacher Ashanda Grissett boarded an oyster boat off the North Carolina coast. Grissett’s mission was to immerse herself in the intricacies of North Carolina’s $14 million oyster industry and distill her newfound knowledge into an educational Ag Mag for North Carolina Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom program.

“There was a thunderstorm the night before. The wind knocked many of the oyster cages over,” Grissett recalled. “The water wasn’t that deep. The oyster farmer jumped off the boat and walked around to turn the cages over. During the boat ride, he showed me oysters at various stages of their lifecycle.”

Kenan Fellow Ashanda Grissett and her mentor, AJ Stanaland visit an oyster farm in Eastern NC.

Exploring North Carolina’s Oyster Industry

Grissett, a 2023-24 Kenan Fellow, teaches ninth-grade earth environmental science at The Center of Applied Sciences and Technology (The COAST) in Brunswick County Schools. She was named the 2023-24 Teacher of the Year at her school. Grissett admits to having a limited understanding of oyster farming before her internship.

Throughout her three-week internship, Grissett visited four different oyster farms, giving her a comprehensive overview of oyster cultivation from larval to adulthood. 

“It was such an interesting journey because I had a different experience at each farm and saw the entire process,” Grissett recalled. “I also got to eat fresh oysters straight from the water, which was delightful.”

Accompanying Grissett on her oyster farm tours was her Brunswick County Farm Bureau mentor, AJ Stanaland, the owner of Northwest Land & Cattle. Stanaland arranged all aspects of Grissett’s internship and is now working with her to develop the Ag Mag. 

“As a mentor, she was amazing,” Grissett stated. “She had everything lined up and ensured I had a great experience.” 

Photos by NC Farm Bureau Kenan Fellow Ashanda Grissett who explored North Carolina’s oyster industry.

Enhancing Ag Education with the Oysters Ag Mag

Grissett is particularly excited about the virtual aspect of the North Carolina Oysters Ag Mag. Embedded within the publication will be QR codes, allowing students to scan and access a series of videos shot during the summer internship. In these videos, Grissett will narrate information about oyster farming and oyster science to augment the learning experience.

“I like the addition of the virtual component to the year’s Ag Mag because we have all types of learners in the classroom,” Grissett emphasized. “Some of our students learn better by reading while others are visual learners or auditory learners. It makes the Ag Mag more accessible.”

Ag Literacy and STEM Connections

Since 2013, the Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership at N.C.State University has partnered with North Carolina Ag in the Classroom, the NC Farm Bureau Federation, and a local county Farm Bureau to support an educator who explores a specific agricultural industry. These educators learn about the science behind crop and animal cultivation and explore potential career pathways for students within their region.

Grissett follows in the footsteps of four previous NC Farm Bureau Federation Kenan Fellows who have explored North Carolina’s agricultural industry and created Ag Mags, digital and print resources based on the North Carolina Ag Mags model. 

Packed with fun facts, activities, and career spotlights, the Ag Mag is a STEM-supported teaching tool that provides students with insights into North Carolina’s agriculture industry. Previous Kenan Fellows have produced Ag Mags on beef production, Christmas tree farming, hog production, and peanuts.

Heather Morton, director of North Carolina Ag in the Classroom, underscored the significance of this partnership between the North Carolina Farm Bureau and the Kenan Fellows Program. 

“The most important and meaningful aspect of this partnership is that we are providing local opportunities for educators about agriculture, our state’s number one industry,” Morton stated. “Agricultural literacy is so important for students, and agriculture has so many STEM and interdisciplinary connections.”

Watch a video about Grissett’s experience produced by the NC Farm Bureau.

by Jennifer Allen on June 26, 2023 | Reprinted from Coastal Review

Graveyard of the Atlantic exhibit inside the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. Photo: N.C. Aquariums

Construction began this spring on an interactive exhibit to educate the public on the importance of oysters at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island.

Aquarium Director Larry Warner told Coastal Review that if a grant through the Institute of Museum and Library Services, or IMLS, comes through, the plan is to open the exhibit they’re calling “Fish Filter Food: The Human Oyster Connection,” in early summer 2025. 

Warner said they’ll know if they received the grant in September.

The grant is a two-year proposal that includes funds to support formal evaluation, Warner explained. “This said, our hope would be to open the exhibit by early summer of 2025, with evaluation occurring over that summer and closure of the grant process in September of 2025.”

Seed money to get the project started came through the North Carolina Coastal Federation, which has partnered with the aquarium on the exhibit, through two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grants. 

“We are requesting an IMLS grant that would be a combination of federal funding with a 100% match provided by the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island,” he said. “We will continue to seek additional funding from other resources as well to round out what we need.” 

During the 2023 Oyster Summit in Raleigh, Warner told the crowd of about 200 that Coastal Federation staff, after receiving the federal grant funds, approached the aquarium in 2020 to look at the possibility of creating an oyster exhibit. 

The Coastal Federation, which publishes Coastal Review, hosted the two-day symposium in May.

Coastal Federation Oyster Program Director Erin Fleckenstein said that the partnership offers a way for people to learn about oyster habitats and the importance of oyster sanctuary work through interactive, hands-on engagement.

The aquarium has roughly 330,000 annual visitors, and “is a great venue to get messaging out,” Warner explained. 

The aquarium is already committed to promoting oysters as part of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, and as part of the N.C. Oyster Trail, which lists the Roanoke aquarium as an educational stop.

Because of this, the North Carolina Aquarium Society is acting as a liaison through an agreement with Coastal Federation “to help us make this (exhibit) happen.”

Though the pandemic shutdown caused some delays, Warner said the project was not derailed. In 2020, aquarium staff, coastal federation staff and a stakeholder group began working together.

After several brainstorming sessions – and lots of ideas – Warner said the ideas were distilled down to a “very simple message to get this out to people who come through the aquarium on a single-day basis.”

The exhibit, which will start in the aquarium’s Wild Wetlands area and wind through to the Ocean’s Edge area.

Rendering of “Fish Filter Food: The Human Connection” exhibit from the presentation. Image: N.C. Aquariums

The exhibit focuses on four main topics, with each of the following represented in a specific area: “Fish,” or how oysters interconnect in the aquatic and terrestrial food chain; “Filter,” featuring oysters and the benefits they provide to the marine environment; “Food,” or oysters and the benefits they provide to humans; and “Guest Actions”, or how you can help.

In the aquarium’s Croatan exhibit, Warner said the plan is to add a replica inside that habitat of the process of oyster reef restoration, where there will be information defining oysters and oyster reefs.

The exhibit will contain tanks filled with the animals found underwater around oyster reefs accompanied by an activity to identify the different types of creatures.

Rendering of the “Fish” area of the exhibit from the presentation. Image: N.C. Aquariums

One area Warner said they’re especially excited about is the filter section.

“Because we can’t actually put an oyster display to show the oysters actually filtering the water, we’re going to use digital technology,” Warner said. There will be a reef projected on the wall that simulates how oysters filter water. 

Plans also include a hands-on display of a mural with an oyster reef and audio samples of underwater sounds, a section on how microplastics and other marine debris can affect oyster reefs, and videos with messages from area scientists and professionals about oysters.

Rendering of the “Filter” area of the exhibit from the presentation. Image: N.C. Aquariums

Warner said in a recent interview that since the Oyster Summit took place there have been more detailed discussions “regarding many of the wonderfully planned, hands-on interactives with outside vendors who can make them the best they can be. As with everything, it seems, post-pandemic pricing for this type of design work has increased significantly.”

As a result, the new challenge will be seeking additional funding to round out the exhibit, “but with the tremendous excitement shared by many who have seen the designs, I’m quite hopeful we’ll be able to secure the additional funding,” he said.

Warner explained that the process to create the exhibit has “been amazing. There are so many dedicated individuals involved who are passionate about oysters and their role with the coastal ecosystem, environment, and economy.”

Rendering of the “Food” area of the exhibit from the presentation. Image: N.C. Aquariums

The process started with stakeholder meetings to determine key educational points. 

“Designing an exhibit from concept to completion is never a fast process, particularly if you want to make sure you’re hitting the right educational points without overwhelming the audience, all the while making it fun, interactive and engaging. COVID was a definite impact in this process, as it did slow the process down considerably,” he said. “The silver lining with COVID, however, was that it gave us more time to examine how we approach the messaging – not to mention it has allowed time for additional programs and support to develop in the overall oyster arena.”

If the Institute of Museum and Library Services funding comes through, Warner said he plans to propose presenting the exhibit during the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA, annual conferences in 2024 and 2025, and he hopes to write an article about the exhibit for varying state and regional publications, as well as AZA’s publication. 

“I have also already been approached by the National Aquarium in Baltimore about our exhibit with interest in potential educational collaboration. One of the nice qualities about exhibits is that if they prove successful, there is always the opportunity to create a scaled-back traveling edition or duplicate the exhibit at other facilities,” Warner said. “And finally, we want to make sure that our commitment to the N.C. Oyster Trail’s education component supports the importance of informing the public on the importance of oysters.”

by Natalie Mooney on June 14, 2023 | Reprinted from Spectrum News 1

WILMINGTON, N.C. — When it comes to oysters, you may have heard the myth that you can only eat the tasty treats in months with an “r” — September through April. Thanks to oyster farms along the coast, people who live in North Carolina can enjoy them throughout the summer as well.

What You Need To Know

  • Farmed oysters can be harvested year-round, meaning they can be served and eaten year-round as well
  • Farmed oysters help to keep the wild oyster population from depleting
  • North Carolina has an oyster trail that allows visitors to visit the farms, learn about oysters and taste how the different waters impact the flavor

Matthew Schwab, the owner of Hold Fast Oyster Company, says there are plenty of benefits to farming oysters. Not only are oyster farms good for keeping oysters on plates throughout the year, they’re also helping maintain the population of wild oysters, which filter and clean our waterways.

(Natalie Mooney/Spectrum News 1)

“Historically, wild oyster populations were kind of pillaged,” said Schwab. “That’s why oyster populations are in decline in the wild. Farm-raised oysters are helping to alleviate that.”

His oysters are in a constant rotation of harvest. He takes the ones ready for the market out of the sound and back to his base to be sorted and sent off. Schwab uses a special tool called an oyster tumbler.

“The major purpose for the tumbler is that it helps grow a much more consistent oyster,” said Schwab. “Instead of a bunch of oysters that grow a bunch of different shapes, they tend to all be consistently shape and easier to shuck, which chefs really like.”

Schwab is all about quality, from tumbling them just right to growing them just right. He says North Carolina has great conditions for growing delicious oysters.

(Natalie Mooney/Spectrum News 1)

“And just amazing conditions for growing oysters,” said Schwab, “From the temperature, the variations in the types of waterways be it a sound, a bay, river, inlets.”

And those high-quality oysters will soon be on someone’s plate right here in North Carolina. His “Seabirdies” are heading to Seabird, one of Wilmington’s best restaurants for fresh caught, local seafood. Chef Dean Neff says it’s that freshness that makes the oysters he serves as Seabird really stand out.

“You know, these are coming to us the day they’re pulled out of the ocean,” Neff said, “So it’s really amazing to have them come in, bring these oysters in, and then we’re serving these oysters that night.”

He hopes that with farmed oysters being available year-round, it’ll allow people to experience food differently — one that should not only be savored, but cherished.

(Natalie Mooney/Spectrum News 1)

“Take it in without thinking about am I chewing it or what’s happening, and it’s the right size,” said Neff, “And they’re as beautifully maintained as the oysters farmed in North Carolina, I think people will have an experience that is very much like experiencing the ocean.”

There are plenty of ways to experience the ocean through oysters along the NC Oyster Trail. From touring oyster farms to learning about their benefit to the state and tasting how the different areas along the coast impact the flavor of the meat, there’s no shortage of ways to enjoy these savory shellfish throughout the year. 

Wilmington combines fascinating history, a lively food scene, and easy access to the outdoors—a perfect spot for a weekend getaway.

by Gear Patrol Studios on June 13, 2023 | Presented by VisitNC

Gear Patrol Studios

Where can you explore a preserved WWII-era battleship, window shop through a charming downtown steeped in centuries of history, spend an afternoon fishing (or paddleboarding) and then dig into some mouthwatering oysters? Wilmington, North Carolina.

Tucked between the Cape Fear River and the mighty Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington might not have the name recognition of other East Coast hot spots, but this under-the-radar destination is well worth a visit. The Port City offers easy access to the outdoors, one-of-a-kind restaurants and lots of culture, including the gorgeous Airlie Gardens and world-class art at the Cameron Art Museum.

Considering a visit? Wilmington International Airport, located just outside of town, has direct flights from several cities in the eastern U.S. While you can always book an Airbnb, Wilmington has several excellent boutique hotels within its downtown core: The Front Street Inn offers a picturesque garden for guests, Arrive Wilmington mixes flavorful cocktails at its Gazebo Bar and the beautifully decorated Dreamers by DW provides a modern twist on the classic bed and breakfast.

Make sure you carve out some time to explore the area’s culinary scene. Manna is a Wilmington mainstay thanks to its innovative take on New American cuisine, and in addition to classic pub grub, the nearby Front Street Brewery has the largest whiskey selection in the region. Indochine serves up delicious Vietnamese and Thai food in a colorful dining room (plus a lush backyard), and Casey’s Buffet is a one-stop tour for Southern cooking: pile your plate high with pulled pork, fried chicken, and if you’re feeling adventurous, pig’s feet.

To help you get the most out of your visit, here are a few different ways to explore Wilmington and its surroundings.

By Oyster

Visit North Carolina

Love shellfish? You’ve come to the right place. Bring your appetite and head out on the NC Oyster Trail, a comprehensive self-guided tour of North Carolina’s thriving seafood industry. Sample delicious local shellfish at a variety of seafood restaurants, hop in a kayak to learn about the oyster beds of Bald Head Creek and even tour a working oyster farm at the Cape Fear Oyster Co. (while snacking on some of the freshest oysters you’ll ever eat).

by Shea Carver on May 30, 2023 | Reprinted from Port City Daily

Miso Baked — an oyster special last fall, featured by Flying Machine’s new chef Ryan Jankowski. (Courtesy Flying Machine)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Almost two years after opening its restaurant and taproom on Wrightsville Beach, Flying Machine is leaning more into its coastal roots as it undergoes a transformation this summer.

What was once known as Flying Machine Taproom and Kitchen will become Flying Machine Oyster Bar in the next two months. 

“With the additional focus on oysters, we thought the best way to do it was to actually change the name rather than just update the menu,” co-owner Grant Steadman said.

Diners, especially vacationers to Harbor Island, expressed an interest in tasting more seafood, especially locally caught, since the restaurant opened in 2021. Steadman and co-owner Dave Sweigart decided to listen.

“Our waterways have a lot to offer,” Steadman told Port City Daily two weeks ago. 

Flying Machine’s chef, Ryan Jankowski, already works with Middle Sound Mariculture and N. Sea Oyster Farm. Steadman said they’re expanding to work directly with more farmers as well, with a goal to have four or more kinds of oysters available.

“A lot of farms are about to open up in our area or have just begun harvesting,” he added.

The draft bar at Flying Machine Wrightsville Beach will be transformed into a raw bar in the next few months, as the restaurant also undergoes a name change Flying Machine Oyster Bar. (Courtesy photo)

The bivalves will be situated in a newly installed raw bar that takes up roughly half of the current draft bar in the main dining area. A shucker will be on hand to educate visitors about the oysters, where they come from, the flavor and growth process. — Traditionally oysters in North Carolina are at the height in months that end in “R.” During the offseason, when the water is warmer, Steadman said they may bring in oysters from Virginia, Massachusetts and Canada.

“But the real focus is going to be on our waterways because we want to be an example of our local fare,” Steadman said. 

Once the oyster bar opens, a new menu of shooters will launch as well. Bar manager Brian Pratt has been devising a few different takes. Naturally, the traditional vodka-based tomato concoction will be sold, but there will also be a Mezcal shooter, which most excites Pratt. 

“The mezcal with the oyster gives the shooter a roasted oyster flavor,” he said. “We’re using lime, celery, cucumber, tomatillos, green Tabasco, fresh cracked salt and pepper — it’s smokey, briny and delicious.”

A chicken noodle soup shooter makes for another original flavor; FM released it last year to fanfare. It contains vodka, clamato, celery seed, Worcestershire sauce, lemon and a spiced salt rim.

“One of our most unique ingredients is our housemade chicken noodle soup-infused vodka,” Pratt said. “We do that by infusing vodka with celery, parsley, onion, carrot and some chicken stock.”

Pratt has been studying various recipes and ingredients to devise a fun shooter menu. He calls oysters the most alluring to work with because of the flavor profiles. 

“They are so surprising and incredible, I love incorporating them into the cocktail program here,” he said.

The restaurant works with local fishermen but also other regional purveyors for vegetables, grains and protein. Tidewater Grain Co. from Oriental, North Carolina, for instance, provides Flying Machine its heirloom rice. 

According to Jankowski, Seven Springs “has the best pork in North Carolina.” It can be tasted in the shrimp and grits. Created with Carolina stone-ground grits, the cornmeal is slow-cooked in milk, the local shrimp poached in butter, finished with a fresh Parmesan and Cheshire pork bacon.

“A perfect summer dish,” he said.

Jankowski, who has been working in kitchens for 15 years, attended the Culinary Institute of America Hyde Park and most recently worked under Chef Patrick Hogan at Caribsea on Emerald Isle. He moved to Wilmington and began his tenure at Flying Machine last fall. In April, Jankowsi launched a new seasonal menu, highlighting the classics of the South and Low Country. 

“We took many older classic dishes that are tried and true and, in our way, reconstructed them with local ingredients,” he said.

Collards, for example, are slow-braised and highlighted in a creamy collard baba — a Southern take on the Middle Eastern baba ganoush. The earthy flavor is brightened by lemon instead of vinegar in the pot liquor and served with peanut gremolata, parsley and olive oil, with pita. The chef approached the item to appeal to vegetarians as well, replacing bacon fat with oyster and shitake mushrooms to bring back the texture and umami flair. 

Last fall he served greens as part of an oyster special, having cooked them in miso before placing them atop the oyster, with Parmesan and bacon fat biscuit crumbles.

The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, and while seafood will play more prominently, Jankowski hasn’t done away with other dishes, both vegetable- and meat-forward. In fact, one of Janowski’s favorites is the Southern summer classic: tomato heirloom sandwich. 

“Coming into some hot days, with people coming and going for a long day on the beach or the boat, we really wanted to keep this menu light and refreshing and easy to pair with a cold beer,” he said. “Local heirloom tomatoes, herbed cream, pickled onions with lemon zest and peppery arugula — it’s addicting and doesn’t weigh down your palate.”

“Ryan has experience and passion for seafood and we’ve been really lucky to have him,” Steadman said. “And he’s definitely a driving force behind this raw bar concept.”

As Flying Machine prepares for changes to its restaurant, its flagship brewery on Randall Parkway could be ramping up production soon as well. FM beer will be landing at Wilmington International Airport (ILM) in one of Tailwind Concessions satellite bars. 

“We approached them with the idea of selling beer in the airport, and obviously with their expansion, they are looking to do different things,” Steadman said. 

Tailwind president Jeff Switzer, who oversees concessions at ILM, said that’s how a lot of their partnerships grow: when businesses reach out as vendors. 

The bar will be located along the new terminal near gates seven, eight and nine. Switzer said working with locals gives the airport a sense of place.

“We try to be good stewards of the community — the first thing people see when they fly in, and the last thing they see when they’re leaving the airport are local businesses,” he said.

Though details are still being hammered out on which beer FM will be selling, Steadman said the goal is to switch out flavors frequently. The brewery has an end-of-summer target to tap the beer at the Delta and American Airlines gates.

”We’re proud of being creative with our beer,” Steadman said and added, by fall, after the oyster bar is up and running in Wrightsville Beach, FM’s oyster stout will likely return.

by John Jeremiah Sullivan on May 29, 2023 | Reprinted from Our State

During a day in the marsh with a professional oysterwoman, a Wilmington writer who was born and raised in the Midwest learns to stop worrying and love the briny flavor of fresh, wild oysters.

Äna Shellem uses buckets to gather oysters and baskets to collect a seaweed species called Dead Man’s Fingers. She’ll deliver the seaweed to Chef Dean Neff, who uses it in his creations at Seabird restaurant in Wilmington. Photograph by Matt Ray Photography

Earlier this year, I was having raw oysters at Manna in downtown Wilmington and chatting with the bartender, an affable, bearded guy in his mid-40s. We were talking about seafood, and it was evident that he knew a fair amount. “You seem to be really into fishing,” I said at one point. He reached down, undid the cuffs of his shirtsleeves, and rolled them up. His arms were covered in realistic blue-green tattoos of various finfishes and shellfishes and tackle. “You could say so,” he said.

The oysters that night seemed especially good, and the bartender explained why: They were wild as opposed to “farmed,” or cultivated. They’d been harvested on Masonboro Island, off the coast of the Cape Fear peninsula, not even 10 miles to the southeast of where we sat. On the menu, they were listed as “Masonboro Wild Selects.”

To understand the pleasure that I take in eating oysters in my adopted hometown of Wilmington, you’d need to come from a place like I do, on the borderlands of Indiana and Kentucky, where the nearest coast lay along the Patoka Lake reservoir. You didn’t want to mess with oysters so far into the interior. Too risky. Only when I moved to North Carolina 20 years ago did I come to appreciate how special raw oysters are and how different they can be from one another. The oysters we eat here are so fresh that you can taste the seawater from the deck of the boat they came in on.

At Manna in downtown Wilmington, Chef Carson Jewel uses Shell’em Seafood’s Wild Masonboro select oysters in his raw platters. Photograph by Matt Ray Photography

I had always assumed that half of the raw oysters found in local restaurants were wild, but it turns out that only a small percentage are. Nationally, the figure is tiny, like 5 percent. That has a lot to do with the obliteration of their habitat. In a place like Wilmington, situated in a fertile spot on the coast, the number might flutter upward during peak season, but not by much. That makes sense. Most restaurants value consistency above almost anything, and an oyster farmer can turn out a satisfying and essentially identical product week after week. But wild oysters possess more interest, flavor-wise. While the cultivated ones are often grown on a type of scaffolding, or “growing rack,” in watery environments where conditions are relatively fixed, wild oysters bear in their bodies the full vicissitudes of the sea: the rolling and tumbling, the greater variety of minerals that filter through from the marshes.

My bartender said that he likes to harvest wild oysters himself, prospecting for them in a skiff. He locates the beds at the edges of marshes and along the barrier islands. “My biggest trick for finding them,” he told me, “is to catch them spitting.” I asked what he meant. “When you see the tide go out and the water go down, and they start to become uncovered,” he explained, “you’ll see them literally start spitting, like somebody spitting into a spittoon.” He paused. “If you really want to know about oysters,” he said, “you need to talk to Äna Shellem.” He described her as someone whose mission is to raise awareness about wild oysters and other shellfish.

“Is that her real name?” I asked. “Shellem?

“That’s her real name.”

“That’s my real name,” Äna Shellem says, by way of hello, when she picks up the phone. She likes to get that out of the way early on. Her maiden name is Gilmore. She’s in her 30s, tall, with a round, friendly face and blonde braids. She was born in Tennessee, became a child actor and stage performer, then lived for a while in New York City, where she did some time in the fine-dining world. In 2012, she met a man named Jon Shellem, who co-owns a bar down here, Red Dogs in Wrightsville Beach. Jon was living on a sailboat at the time and doing lots of shellfish harvesting. With him, Äna experienced for the first time what she calls “the feeling the marsh gives me.”

She married Jon, got her fishing and dealer’s licenses, and started selling wild shellfish directly to local restaurants. These days, she’s one of eastern North Carolina’s main boutique shellfish suppliers. In what surely ranks among the least difficult decisions in the history of company-naming, she chose to call her business Shell’em Seafood.

After a morning in the marshes, Shellem comes away with two mesh bags of Masonboro prime single oysters. The bags are tagged with the time and place where she harvested the mollusks, and she’ll deliver them that same afternoon to chefs Keith Rhodes at Catch and Dean Neff at Seabird. Photograph by Matt Ray Photography

One morning a few weeks later, I find myself riding with Shellem in a small boat out from the marina at Wrightsville Beach. It’s late March, the moon is new, and the wind is blowing from the northeast. The water level is high in the marshes. We cruise along smoothly on turquoise water under a cloudless sky, out toward Masonboro Island. “We don’t have a great tide today,” Shellem says.

When you live in downtown Wilmington, as I do — 30 miles up the Cape Fear River from where it empties into the sea — it’s possible to forget how close you are to the undeveloped barrier islands that line the coast. As Shellem steers, we pass the last few clusters of big waterfront houses and enter the wild. Pelicans fly parallel to our path as if wanting to know where we’re headed. I am transported in a way that seems disproportionate to the nearness of these untouched beaches. A short drive, a quick boat ride, and it’s another world.

Shellem pays daily attention to the moon and the wind and the tide. They tend to determine the amount of time that she can work in a particular area. If there’s a wind from the northeast, as there is today, she might have only 45 minutes to wade a hundred yards to the center of a marsh, where she knows the shellfish are, and return safely to the boat. “The childhood fear of quicksand comes back quick,” she says, “when you’re alone and sink into the marsh up to your ribs.”

Shellem works along the bed on Masonboro Island, where she and the author spent a morning harvesting wild oysters. Photograph by Matt Ray Photography

After about 20 minutes, she slows the boat, and we putter up to a little spit of muddy sand at the edge of a marsh. The beach is covered in gray oyster shells. Most are dead — that is to say, empty — but a certain number still have the living animal inside. I can hardly tell the difference between the two, but Shellem’s eye instantly singles out the live ones. And that’s how she refers to them: as singles.

As we crunch around in our boots, Shellem explains how the oyster bed formed. At first, you have feathers, young oysters with relatively straight, thin shells that “grow out in a very ugly, blooming-onion kind of way,” she says. As the clusters are tossed by storms, or the wake of boats, or the shuffling of sandbars, the oysters shift enough that some shells break off and tumble to the bottom of the pile. “That’s where I find the nuggets that I like,” Shellem says, “the ones that are thick enough.”

Some restaurants serve the younger feathers. “You can sell them to fish shops for use in stews that feed a bunch of people quickly,” she says. But Shellem deals mainly with restaurants that serve raw oysters, so she hunts for the singles. It’s not just their thickness that’s attractive to her, but also the shape. As the oysters grow and are tossed around in the ocean, their shells become twisted by the changes in position. They develop deeper cups, where a juicier mollusk can develop. “It’s not going to be stringy or anything,” she says. “It’ll be more velvety, more of a full-mouth feel.” Another thing: The meat-to-shell proportion is better. “Most chefs will tell you that you eat with your eyes first,” Shellem says. She keeps her eyes out for shells with what she calls “that beautiful mermaid tail,” knowing that when they’re opened, they’ll likely display a “purple pearly sheen.”

Shellem uses a homemade tool that she calls her “cluster buster” to knock a nice-looking oyster off a clump of Masonboro singles. Photography by Matt Ray Photography

Shellem moves through the marshes with a culling tool, a sort of small machete that she’s customized by putting notches at every three inches along the back end. The law stipulates that wild oysters can be harvested only after they’ve reached a length of three inches, so with her homemade knife, Shellem is able to measure as she goes. “I call it my cluster buster,” she says.

I pick up an oyster that looks roughly like the ones she’s gathering. “Is this one?” I ask, like a kid with a rock that he hopes is an arrowhead.

“Good job!” she says. “And you cut your hand, too, like a real marsh boy.”

I look down and see that one of my fingers is bleeding. I hadn’t realized how sharp the shells were when I reached for it.

“Do you want to eat this one?” she asks.

“You mean, like, right here?”

“Yeah!” she says.

“Um, sure. Is that … how you do it?”

She pulls out a pocketknife, inserts the blade at the base, and then works it along the edge, prying the two halves apart until the shell pops open. I hesitate before tipping the oyster back into my mouth. Shellem watches closely.

“Oh my God,” I exclaim. “That was so good!” It’s salty and — to borrow her word — velvety, full of what can only be described as oyster flavor (the Japanese have an untranslatable term for it). I’m surprised at how surprised I am to like it. I confess to Shellem that I’d always figured restaurants were doing something to the oysters to make them more palatable. I don’t know what I thought that something was. The mignonette? The ice?

“That’s the beauty,” she says. “They come out of the ocean tasting like that.”

A Masonboro prime single oyster. Photograph by Matt Ray Photography

As the boat moves away from the marsh and back toward Wrightsville Beach, I ask Shellem to define that “feeling of the marsh” — the sensation she’d spoken of when we first talked by phone, the feeling that changed her life and turned her into a professional oysterwoman. Part of it, she says, is “the sheer empowerment and confidence of driving a boat on your own.” On top of that, Shellem says, she loves having “a job that I know will end with a work of art on some chef’s plate.” But most important: “The feeling the marsh gives me is that I can always feed my family. I can always feed my friends.”

I know what she means, if only in a vicarious way. So much of the food that we eat has, at best, an abstract provenance, words on a label. These oysters have come straight from the sea, 10 miles from my house. As I just learned on the beach, slurping down the freshest oyster that one could find, they hardly need touching before they’re edible and delicious.

Shellem gives me a bag to take home, and I serve the oysters that night. The kids seem impressed — they’ve never seen me bring home food that wasn’t from the grocery store. The effect, for me, is one of existing more intensely in the place where I live. Tasting and becoming one with it. The experience of ordering raw oysters at Manna will never be the same. It will be better — and, like the shell-cups of the singles that Äna Shellem harvests in the marshes, deeper.

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

Photo: sweet marshmallow/Shutterstock

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

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

What exactly is a green gill oyster?

Photo: Chironfils Huitres

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

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

Where can you find green gill oysters?

Photo: Sandbar Oyster Company

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

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

Do green gill oysters have a distinct flavor?

Photo: Sandbar Oyster Company

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

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

How should you serve green gill oysters?

Photo: Little Star Oyster Farm/Facebook

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For NC Oyster Summit registration and other details, visit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plan your trip

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