North Carolina Oysters – A Comeback Story

Are oysters finally making a comeback in North Carolina? The numbers seem to say yes, but there is still a way to go.

At one time, the waters of North Carolina’s sounds were among the most abundant resources anywhere for oysters.

Richard Hakluyt, who described the Roanoke Island Expedition—the Lost Colony—wrote, “And of oyster shells there is plenty enough…for the space of many miles together in length, and two or three miles in breadth, the ground is nothing else, being but half a foot or a foot under water for the most part.“

One hundred and twenty-five years later, as John Lawson was chronicling his North Carolina journey, he noted, “Oysters, great and small, are found almost in every Creek and Gut of Salt-Water, and are very good and well-relish’d.”

The early European explorers were not the only ones noticing how abundant Crassostrea virginica, the Atlantic oyster, was in North Carolina waters. After decimating their own stocks in the 1880, the oystermen of Virginia and Maryland brought their boats and dredges to North Carolina, shipping over a million bushels of oysters back to their homes in the north and initiating the North Carolina Oyster War.

Their indiscriminate harvest of oysters also heralded a decline in oyster stocks that has taken more than a century to restock.

It is unfair to wholly blame Maryland and Virginia for the our state’s loss of oysters. Bad laws, poor management, ineffective and uneven enforcement, and a devastating disease were also contributors.

But, slowly—perhaps inexorably—the North Carolina oyster harvest is improving. There have been some ups and downs, and it no where near the harvests of 125 years ago…and it never should be; the 1,833,000 bushels of oysters taken in 1902—the state record—is not sustainable. Nonetheless, there is no doubt there are more in-state harvested oysters today than there were five or six years ago.

Until recently, wild caught oysters were the majority of the landings, but over the past few years, farm raised—aquaculture—oysters have accounted for over half of North Carolina’s production.

There are a number of reasons for that.

Over harvesting did more than just decimate the breeding stock; it also destroyed the habitat.  One of the reasons oysters were so prolific in North Carolina waters, and especially in Pamlico Sound, was because there were lots of places for oysters to attach themselves and form oyster reefs. Mechanical dredging scoops everything up, taking all the oysters and destroying the habitat.

One of the major projects to restore wild oyster is being undertaken by the North Carolina Coastal Federation. Using maps from a survey done by Navy Lt. Frank Winslow in 1885, the Coastal Federation is reseeding reefs that once were home to healthy oyster populations.

The project is working—although slowly—because of the astonishing accuracy and detail of Winslow’s work.

Even as the wild numbers increase, there is little doubt that the future of oyster harvesting is in farm raised stock. Oysters are a natural filter, taking in taking in sediment and even some pollutants and extruding clean water. That is true whether on a farm or in the wild, so oyster aquaculture is considered part of a clean water strategy. More importantly from a commercial perspective, the product is more consistent and for a number of reasons farm-raised oysters tend to be larger that wild caught.

Consistent in quality does not mean they all taste the same.

Bodie Island Oysters, which is located on the Roanoke Sound, is noticeably milder and less saline than an oyster from Ocracoke or Hatteras Island, and some of the oysters from farther south are even saltier.

The North Carolina oyster farms are almost all family businesses and are usually five acres or less. Most are less than five years old and not producing as much as they hope to in the future.

It is, however, worth seeking them out. Although a number of local restaurants feature North Carolina oysters, Dan Lewis at Coastal Provisions in Southern Shores has probably done the best job of always having some local oysters on hand.

Coastal Cravings in Duck – sister restaurant of Coastal Provisions in Southern Shores