Scott burrell pilots his Wilmington barge in the waters of the northern tip of Figure Eight Island in North Hanover County. As the Cape Fear Oyster Company farm approaches, black plastic cages float in the water.
Burrell operates three leased sites in the Intra-Coastal Waterway that total just under 4 acres where he has the potential to grow up to 4 million oysters per year. He shares the entire process, from oyster seed to half-shell, on guided farm tours designed to educate North Carolinians about the importance and vulnerability of oysters.
âIt’s hard for people to imagine (an oyster farm) until they see it,â he explained.
Cape Fear Oyster Company is one of the stopovers of the North Carolina Oyster Trail, developed in partnership with the Coastal Federation of North Carolina, North Carolina Sea Grant and the North Carolina Shellfish Producers Association promote “oyster tourism” on the North Carolina coast.
The trail, launched in 2020, includes oyster farms, seafood markets, restaurants, and educational sites with the goal of stimulating an endangered species.
Save a species
Wild oyster populations in North Carolina have experienced dramatic declines; the number of bushels harvested fell from 200,000 in 1960 to just 35,000 in 1994 due to overexploitation, habitat loss, disease and predators.
Although the numbers are on the rise – largely thanks to oyster farming – with bushels harvested climbing to 157,000 in 2019, the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Division continues to classify them as a species of special concern.
Oyster farming reduces the pressure on wild oyster populations, allowing them to rebound while catering to local appetites for fresh seafood.
the North Carolina Oyster Plan, a stakeholder action plan for the restoration and protection of oyster populations, calls for “an expanded and sustained sustainable development of the shellfish industry”, which includes an increase in the number of oyster farms.
âThere has been substantial growth over the past five years and great legislative pressure to fund the industry,â Burrell said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put the brakes on these efforts and created significant difficulties for oyster farmers. Restaurants have closed, causing most oyster farmers to lose their markets. Shellfish were not on the United States Department of Agriculture’s special crops list, making oyster farmers ineligible for federal aid like the Coronavirus food aid program.
Most restaurants on the North Carolina Oyster Trail, which stretches from Nags Head to Bald Head Island along the coast, have either closed or pivoted to take-out with limited menus. State warrants 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 visits play an important role in boosting demand for oysters.
âThe more the public knows about what we do, the better it will be for the industry,â he said.
âYou might complain about the price of oysters in restaurants, but when you see how many people are involved in buying oysters on the plate, they don’t seem overpriced. The (North Carolina Oyster Trail) helps us get the word out.
Educate the public
Traveling the self-guided trail offers oyster enthusiasts and oyster curious ones the opportunity to learn about North Carolina’s shellfish industry and meet the farmers who we can slide a bowl of. farm-to-table seafood.
“People can feel good by eating farmed oysters,” says Beth darrow, chief scientist at Bald Head Island Conservatory “To eat an oyster is to taste the flavors of the estuary in which it was raised.”
Roysters NC is one of 16 shellfish farms on the North Carolina Oyster Trail. Emerson began growing oysters at a leased site in Beaufort in 2018.
He raises oysters in floating bags. Water and food flow through the floating bags, which are attached to the ocean floor 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 its oysters to mature. During this time, Emerson often takes a boat to the farm to check on their progress; he removes mud, shreds wild oysters that have attached to the shells, and moves growing oysters into larger bags to make sure the seashells are in perfect condition for sale to wholesalers and seafood restaurants.
âWe touch them several times before they go to the market,â he said. “A lot of people think we take the oysters out, grow them up, and harvest them when they’re ready, but there’s a lot going on in between.”
Enjoy the environmental benefits
Oysters also do a lot of work. 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 surges in coastal communities, according to the The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
At the Bald Head Island Conservatory, one of the educational sites on the North Carolina Oyster Trail, visitors can learn about barrier island environments and the importance of oyster ecology.
The non-profit environmental education center also runs guided kayak tours through the swamp to showcase wild oyster reefs and volunteers can sign up to bag recycled oyster shells for the restoration of reefs or counting spat (baby oysters) as part of a citizen science project.
âUnderstanding something is the first step to protecting it,â Darrow said.
âMost of our visitors aren’t aware of the oyster life cycle, whether they spend time in the plankton or even the reefs people kayak through are full of live oysters. We support (the North Carolina Oyster Trail) even though we are not an oyster farm because we educate the public about the importance of oyster ecology.
The opportunity to educate the public about oyster farming was one of the reasons Burrell signed up to be part of the North Carolina Oyster Trail. He hopes teaching others about the industry will help him grow.
âThe farmers really came together to support each other,â he said. âIf we harvest wild oysters at the same rate (we harvest farmed oysters), we will overexploit and that will cause environmental problems.