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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Water Grill and Raw Bar | Manteo, NC

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

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

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

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

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

JK’s Restaurant | Kill Devil Hills, NC

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

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

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

PinPoint | Wilmington, NC

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

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

Saltbox Seafood Joint | Durham, NC

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

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

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

Seabird | Wilmington, NC

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

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

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

Sea Level NC | Charlotte, NC

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

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

Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar | Surf City, NC

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

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

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

St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar | Raleigh, NC

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

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

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

Wrightsville Beach Brewery | Wrightsville, NC

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

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

Happy trails!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Liz Biro on January 5, 2021 | Reprinted from Coastal Review

Oysters on the half shell are shown in this file photo. Photo: Ashita Gona

No matter how you travel the new North Carolina Oyster Trail, whether you visit every single restaurant along the route or take an oyster farm tour, you’ll come away with one thing for certain: inspiration to cook your own oysters at home.

They’re best simply prepared with a delectable sauce, and these five recipes cover all the best ways to serve oysters.

If you like raw oysters on the half shell, go for the sweet Vidalia vinegar sauce with pink peppercorns and a hint of sweet sparkling wine. Oysters roasted in the oven or over a live fire are insanely good with garlic butter hot sauce or creamy jalapeno remoulade. Also start thinking about your own signature cocktail sauce. Consider the classic cocktail sauce recipe below a base for unbridled creativity.

No matter which sauce you choose, abide by one important rule: Never pile on so much sauce that it covers up the oyster’s flavor.

Sweet Vidalia Vinegar Sauce

A few drops of vinegar on oysters is standard in many communities along the North Carolina coast. A little acid balances the oyster’s rich texture and creamy flavor. In France, mignonette sauce — chopped shallots, crushed peppercorns and vinegar – is the classic condiment for raw oysters. However vinegar is served on an oyster, apply sparingly or vinegar’s tang will overwhelm the oyster’s natural flavors.

Blend 2 tablespoons minced Vidalia onion, 1 teaspoon crushed pink peppercorns, a pinch of crushed black peppercorns, ¼ cup white wine vinegar and ¼ cup sparkling pink sweet wine such as Moscato in a small bowl. Gently stir until combined. Refrigerate until ice cold. Spoon on to raw oysters or offer as a steamed oyster condiment.

Jalapeno Remoulade

When you’re piling fried oysters on a sandwich or giving oysters a smoky brininess by baking them in their shells in the oven, a creamy sauce with a bite is a decadent way to complement the shellfish’s flavor.

Whisk together ½ cup mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons chopped pickled jalapenos, 1 tablespoon hot or mild chow chow, 1 teaspoon chopped capers, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon lemon juice and 1 teaspoon paprika. Fold in 2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley and 2 teaspoons chopped chives.

Garlic Butter Hot Sauce

No oyster roast is complete without cocktail sauce and little ramekins of hot, melted butter. As oyster roasts progress, those condiments get mixed together little by little as folks double dip in butter and then cocktail sauce or vice versa, creating one utterly delicious amalgamation. That mixing inspired this recipe. Dip steamed oysters into this sauce or drizzle it over fried oysters.

Peel and then finely chop four large cloves of garlic. Place garlic and 1 stick of unsalted butter in a small saucepan set over medium-low heat. Slowly cook the garlic in the butter for 5 minutes. Do not let garlic or butter brown. Continuously stir butter as you add ½ teaspoon paprika, ½ teaspoon chili powder, ½ teaspoon Cajun seasoning, 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, 1 teaspoon horseradish, 1 scant tablespoon tomato paste and 2 tablespoons hot sauce to the pan. Makes ½ cup.

Oysters with mignonette and cocktail sauces. Photo: Edsel Little/Creative Commons

Classic Cocktail Sauce

Asking oyster roast lovers how they make their cocktail sauce is like asking Grandma for a recipe.

They’ll probably tell you they never measure anything and add a dab of this and a little of that depending on how the sauce tastes as they’re mixing it. Everyone seems to agree that ketchup, horseradish, hot sauce and Worcestershire are key ingredients. From there, it’s up to the cook.

Use this recipe as a starter to create your own blend. You might add grated garlic, lime juice, Old Bay seasoning blend, soy sauce, chipotle, wasabi instead of horseradish or other ingredients to make this sauce your own.

Whatever you choose, the end result should be a balance of sweet, salty and tangy with noticeable but not extreme heat. In North Carolina, classic cocktail sauce is a dip for steamed, fried and baked oysters as well as oysters roasted over a fire. It’s also a condiment for fried oysters served in a hamburger bun, a sandwich known as an oyster burger.

In a small bowl, blend together ½ cup ketchup, 1-3 tablespoons grated horseradish, 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce, 1-2 teaspoons hot sauce, 1 teaspoon lemon juice or a dash of vinegar. Cover and refrigerate sauce until ready to use.

Trust Me Sauce

This simplest of all recipes comes from my late Italian uncle who showed up at our house one night to tell us we had been eating steamed clams all wrong.

He suggested that we lay them out on the half shell, sprinkle each clam with a little oregano and garlic powder and then drizzle on top-quality extra-virgin olive oil.

“Trust me,” he said. “I know what I’m talking about.”

Turns out he was right, and his suggestion was equally delicious on oysters baked in their shells in the oven. Sometime, we sprinkled on a little flaked red pepper, too.

© 2023 NC Oyster Trail.