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