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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cape Fear Oyster company near Wilmington. Courtesy Scott Burrell.

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

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

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

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

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

Saving a species

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

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

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

An oyster from Roysters NC. Courtesy Roy Emerson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Educating the public

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing environmental benefit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many consider program a win-win.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Can You Eat NC Oysters?

Things to do on Ocracoke beach fires oysters

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

Is Oyster Farming Sustainable?

NC Oyster Trail Oyster Farming

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

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

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

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

What is the NC Oyster Trail?

NC Oyster Trail

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

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

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

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

How to Find NC Oyster Trail Sites

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

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

Oyster Farm Tours

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

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

NC Oyster Trail Oyster Farm Oyster Seeds

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

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

Oyster Farm Tour Companies

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

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

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

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

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

Restaurants

Ocracoke Restaurants Howards Pub
Howard’s Pub in Ocracoke!

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

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

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

Markets

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

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

NC Oyster Trail Events

NC Oyster Trail NC Oyster Roast

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

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

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

More Ways to Experience the NC Oyster Trail

NC Oyster Trail NC Estuarium Washington NC

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

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

More Themed Trails

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

Blue Ridge Craft Trails Haywood County
How to Find 20+ Haywood County Artists on Blue Ridge Craft Trails
Surry County Wine Trail NC
The Surry County Wine Trail (and 17 Amazing Vineyards to Try)

More Things to Do in Eastern North Carolina

Four Ps of Goldsboro NC Featured Image
The Four Ps of Goldsboro
Lake Waccamaw State Park North Carolina
Lake Waccamaw State Park (11 Things We Love About It!)
Wilmington Railroad Museum in North Carolina Featured Image
Visiting the Awesome Wilmington Railroad Museum
WBC is one of many amazing breweries in Wilmington. See what other makers we love in this guide!
15 Wonderful Breweries in Wilmington (Craft Breweries for Everyone!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demand for NC oysters outpacing supply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closed to shellfishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NC Oyster Tour/Tasting

Straight from the Source on the NC Oyster Trail

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

ABCDs of Shellfish Farm Tours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oyster-friendly restaurants 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Markets and more

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

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

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

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

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

Take a farm tour

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

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

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

A briny bivalve sees a renaissance on the North Carolina Oyster Trail.

by Marti Maguire on January 20, 2022 | Reprinted from NC State Alumni Magazine

ROY EMERSON WAS IN HIS 50S WHEN HE TASTED HIS FIRST RAW oyster, sucked straight from the shell minutes after being plucked from Jarrett Bay, near Williston, N.C. At the time, he was helping harvest the shellfish part time, eyeing a career change that would allow for ample time outside in the salty coastal air. Now, oysters are both his livelihood and obsession; he launched his own farm in 2017. “I was like, ‘Oh, man, this is so great,’” says Emerson, 58, recalling the midmorning snack six years ago. “Now I eat them all the time. I live, eat and breathe oysters.”

Emerson hopes to conjure the same oyster magic among visitors to his Roysters NC farm, one of nearly 40 stops on the North Carolina Oyster Trail. A coastal answer to trendy destination trails featuring bourbon, wine or barbecue, the trail allows visitors to learn about — and, of course, sample — a delicacy that is in the midst of a renaissance in North Carolina.

We want to help visitors and tourists understand the role the oyster plays in our environment and our culture. —Jane Harrison

Roy Emerson offers up a “Beaufort Briny” oyster grown in the North River between Beaufort and Harkers Island.
An oyster with a tiny pea crab inside (delicious raw or fried).
Bags of small oysters, or seeds, ready to be “planted.”
Roy Emerson tending to his oyster farm.

The trail was created by N.C. Sea Grant, an organization based at NC State that conducts research and outreach to benefit coastal communities, in cooperation with the N.C. Coastal Federation and N.C. Shellfish Growers Association. The trail is open-ended; visitors can consult an interactive map and choose to tour one of 16 shellfish farms, view oyster-focused museum exhibits at one of four educational sites, or choose from among 17 restaurants and six markets from the Outer Banks to the Triangle where they can taste North Carolina oysters. Launched in May 2020, the trail aims to boost interest in oysters and educate the public on an organism that benefits the state’s waterways and economy but is threatened by overharvest, storms and habitat loss. Jane Harrison, a coastal economics specialist with N.C. Sea Grant who helped develop the trail, says it covers “all of the pieces of the oyster puzzle.

“We want to help visitors and tourists understand the role the oyster plays in our environment and our culture,” says Harrison, a faculty member in NC State’s colleges of Natural Resources and Agriculture and Life Sciences. Faculty from the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management provided research and support to the trail, helping to build a tourism industry centered on shellfish. As more travelers center trips around food, organizers say, mariculture tourism could provide a new revenue stream for oyster growers and an overall boost to coastal economies.

Oysters growing in their cages at Cape Hatteras Oyster Co. in Buxton, N.C.

A favored food dating back to Native Americans, the state’s oysters were shipped nationwide starting in the late 1800s, leading to overharvesting that continued through much of the 20th century. Recent efforts by researchers, nonprofit organizations and seafood growers seek to protect and expand oyster habitats, which provide shelter to fish and improve water quality.

While oysters were traditionally dredged from natural beds, they are increasingly grown in cages that float on the surface and can be harvested after 10 to 18 months, compared to an average age of three years for wild oysters. In 2019, the state harvest totaled more than 800,000 pounds and was valued at $4.9 million, according to the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. That year, farmed oysters outstripped wild harvests for the first time, Harrison and other researchers found, contributing about $14 million to the state’s gross domestic product, more than half of the $27 million shellfish industry.


Oyster Mythbusting

  • Oysters don’t need to be eaten only in the “R” months of September through April. This guideline was meant to allow wild oysters time to reproduce during the summer months, but does not apply to farmed oysters.
  • While some types of farmed seafood are bad for the environment, farmed oysters are not; they are grown from native species and improve water quality just like wild oysters.

Emerson is one of many farmers that recently joined the ranks of the state’s oyster growers. He left his job in the pharmaceutical industry for an early retirement, and now spends several days a week out on his boat, working a nearly 2-acre lease in the North River. He starts with “seed” oysters the size of a pinky nail and tends to them as they grow in floating mesh bags — making sure they have ample water flow, moving them to larger bags, and washing off algae. When they’re about three inches long, he sends his Beaufort Briny oysters to markets and restaurants. He says he loves being his own boss and spending time on the water, often with help from his adult children. But it’s physical work, and risky: heavy rains or a drop in water quality can affect his harvest, bringing huge losses. “Now my biggest problem is dealing with Mother Nature,” he says. “Sometimes it’s beautiful, and sometimes it’s not so pretty.”

N.C. Sea Grant, an organization based at NC State, worked with other groups to create the N.C. Oyster Trail.
NC State alumni and friends fill up on oysters and other treats at the annual Beaufort County Oyster Roast and Crystal Coast Oyster Roast.

Emerson joined the trail and started offering his first hour-long boat tours this summer, which feature several farms as well as wild oyster reefs if the tides allow. He teaches visitors about the farming process and lets them sample his oysters, which he calls “flavor bombs” that are salty, then buttery, with a sweet finish. The fees paid for tours are a source of extra income, but he says he started doing them mainly to showcase oyster farming as a sustainable business model. “Oysters are out here improving the environment,” he says, “providing food, filtering the water. We are contributing more than we are taking away.”

Statewide, stops on the trail feature wild and farmed oysters, and highlight the variety of flavors and textures found in oysters from different locales. Thanks to factors like the salinity of the water and minerals found where they are raised, oysters from Pamlico Sound to Stump Sound to reefs off the Outer Banks all have a distinct “merroir,” much as the flavor of a wine shows its terroir, factors like climate and the soil where grapes grow. Some visitors sample and compare oysters on the half shell as they might consider wines or craft beer. Are they meaty? Briny? Are the flavors earthy? Others might try them fried or broiled, or on a seaside deck, without a thought to where they came from.

It’s all part of the trail’s allure. “It’s pretty easy,” Harrison says, “to get people excited about eating stuff.”

Oysters are out here improving the environment, providing food, filtering the water. —Roy Emerson

Chris Vergili, chef at the Tidewater Oyster Bar in Wilmington, N.C., says some of his regular customers come in several times a week to sample and compare varieties of local oysters, the centerpiece of the menu at this stop on the trail. They serve about 2,000 local oysters a week, offering four to five types at a time, mostly delivered directly from nearby farms.

Vergili worked previously in established oyster hubs like the San Francisco Bay area, where connoisseurs of the meaty mollusks abound. But he found there were few places showcasing local oysters on the North Carolina coast when he moved there three years ago, and not enough buzz about the many varieties available. Tidewater helped fill that void when it opened last year, he says, and joining the trail was a natural way to help create a community around local oysters. He sees potential for the ranks of oyster aficionados to grow along with the size of the state’s harvest. “The oyster scene in our area is fairly new,” he says. “But these oysters are just as good if not better.”

© 2023 NC Oyster Trail.