The Coastal Carolina Anthology: Cultivate

Story by Ryan Stancil    Photographs by Baxter Miller

A casual conversation about our coast can quickly unearth more controversial topics than your average holiday dinner. From Wilmington to Corolla, the most challenging issues of our times  — gentrification, food justice, race, socioeconomic inequality, climate change, oil, corporate responsibility and sustainability — coalesce in towns built along North Carolina’s sounds and coast. 

The natural beauty of that landscape, and the seafood and recreation that it offers, has drawn people east for ages. From Native Americans and early European settlers to today’s shrinking number of commercial fisherman, our rivers, estuaries, and the Atlantic herself, have provided a way of life for communities for centuries. 

Rising sea level, pollution and development threaten the future of our coast. Efforts to sustain and revive local economies and traditional ways of life are met with many challenges, and are in fact, severely political.

Nothing tells the complicated story of our coast like the oyster. Crassotrea viriginica, or the Eastern Oyster, is North Carolina’s native species. Naturally a filter, the Eastern Oyster can process up to 50-gallons of water daily. Symbolically, it’s a prism that refracts details about how our state’s economy, environment and culture have evolved since the Civil War. Wrapped up in it, is a story about our coast’s past, present and future.

European settlers reported seeing vast oyster reefs off North Carolina’s coast as early as the 16th Century. In 1586, scientist Thomas Harriot observed an enormous oyster reef off Roanoke Island: “There is one shallowe sounde along the coast … where for the space of many miles together in length and two to three miles breadth, the ground is nothing else.” In A New Voyage to Carolina (1674-1711), explorer John Lawson noted that, “Oysters, great and small, are found almost in every creek and Gut of Salt-Water, and are very good and well-relish’d.” Shellfish mounds on Hatteras Island, Harkers Island and Shackleford Banks indicate oysters were a part of Native American foodways long before European contact.

As North Carolina grew, so did demand for our oysters. The state began legislating the harvest of oysters in 1822, a landmark step in North Carolina’s fisheries regulation. In 1858, a new law awarded fishing rights to citizens who enclosed, seeded and harvested estuarine ground for artificial oyster beds — a program that gave rise to our modern day lease program. Oystermen created 52,000 acres of private oyster gardens in the three decades that followed. 

After the Civil War, state leaders turned to oysters, among other natural resources, to rebuild an economy crippled by war. Oyster houses and canneries proliferated, as did irresponsible harvesting practices. Oystermen from near and far wanted in on North Carolina’s oyster boom and those without a stake in maintaining oyster stocks indiscriminately harvested them. In 1891, the legislature declared “war” on out-of-state harvesters who collected oysters with motorized dredges leading to a period now called the “Oyster War of 1891.” 

The industry and harvest levels peaked around the turn of the century when oystermen landed 800,000 bushels — 5.6 million pounds of meat — in 1902. But, years of abundant harvest, came at a cost. Aggressive harvesting, without responsible replacement, critically depleted oyster stocks and habitats. Around that time, courts began ruling in favor of citizens who argued access to the bounty of these waters fell under public trust doctrine which grants permission for the public to navigate and harvest from among other things, sounds and oceans. In the decades that followed, storms, as well as agricultural and industrial pollution continued to damage oyster habitats.  In the 1980s, disease wiped out much of the remaining oyster population. Despite sporadic restoration efforts to build and reseed oyster reefs, wild oyster stocks in North Carolina are nowhere near what they once were and are considered a species of concern by the Division of Marine Fisheries. Erin Fleckenstein, a coastal scientist and regional director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, says that presently, “We are still at about 10% of historic harvest levels.” Because of low stock, most oystermen today can only count on wild oysters for seasonal, supplemental income. The economic heyday of wild oysters has passed.

The wild oyster populations of other east coast states have experienced similar challenges. According to NOAA, Virginia’s current wild harvest levels are 1% or less of historical levels. But unlike North Carolina, Virginia has created a $55.9 million dollar shellfish aquaculture industry, over 30% of which come from oysters. These oysters, this $17 million dollar industry, are raised by a new generation of oystermen who’ve who have embraced mariculture, a type of aquaculture where organisms are cultivated in open water. 

Oyster mariculture, a practice dating back to ancient Rome, can be done in several ways with varied degrees of intervention. The North Carolina Rural Center defines the mariculture spectrum broadly: oyster bed restoration and sanctuary development is considered the most passive intervention while active “farms,” which Virginia has built a booming industry around, the most intensive. For these farms, the state grants private leases to public waters, where seedling or “baby oysters” are raised to maturity. 

Great strides have been made in our state to address the first level of mariculture intervention  (restoration of wild oyster habitats), but Erin says “There is still work to be done to restore reefs. They are important and critical. They may not be quite as bright and brilliant as the coral reef of the Caribbean, but they are just as important at creating the structure in our sound and creating a habitat for other commercially and recreationally important fish species.” 

Intensive intervention (mariculture farming) has garnered significant attention for its potential economic and environmental benefits to North Carolina. It’s something our neighbor to north, Virginia, embraced a decade ago. And while North Carolina has made progress in oyster farming, Jay Styron, owner of Carolina Mariculture, says, “We are so far behind right now, it’s crazy. It’s really sad to know that we have this much potential and resource.” 

Jay, who is Assistant Director of Marine Operations at UNCW Marine Science Center by week, started Carolina Mariculture seven years ago when there were only a few active growers. He says, “I knew I wasn’t going work for the state forever and this is something I could set up as a retirement job.” He and his wife, Jennifer, travel from Wilmington to Cedar Island every weekend to tend to the one acre they are actively farming. 

Also a Cedar Island native, Jay vividly remembers the heyday of oysters on our coast. He recalls, “Growing up here I can remember we'd have community oyster roasts for fundraisers and stuff, and people would go out and catch 15 to 20 bushels per person a day and you'd have a dozen people doing it. There were just mounds of oysters. But they just aren't here anymore.”

He hopes mariculture can change that. “Oysters clean the environment, put people to work and put money in the economy. To me, it’s a win win win,” he says. “The technology is there, the demand is there — now we just need growers.”

“This isn’t rocket science.” says Jay “We get [the seedlings from hatcheries] when they are 1to 2 millimeters in size. You can hold 100,00 oysters in your hands. When we get them that small, we put them in the water in small fine mesh bags. As they grow and get bigger they are sorted into larger mesh cages. You are trying to get them in the largest mesh you can because the larger the mesh, the more water flow, the more water flow, the more food, the more food, the bigger the oyster. So you are always grading and sorting the oysters out.” 

Farm-raised oysters offer a completely new product to North Carolina. Unlike the wild oysters that grow in clusters, those raised in caged water columns are produced mainly for the half-shell market, which values individual oysters consistently uniform in shape and size. “While oysters on the half shell are worth three times the value of a wild oyster, it doesn't affect the market for wild oysters because they are different products,” says Jay. Even the quantity in which they are sold is different: these “single selects” are distributed in bags of 100 instead of by the bushel. 

Farm-raised oysters are also harvested year-round, whereas wild oysters can only be harvested between mid-October and the end of March; a rule many of us know by “You only eat oysters in a month with R.” Grounded in reality (though you won’t become physically ill from eating a wild-caught oyster outside of the traditional season), the rule partially arises from the the spawning habits of wild oysters. Between April and September, oysters use all of their energy to reproduce which slows growth and creates an undesirable meat quality. 

Mariculture oysters are a non-spawning variety of Eastern Oysters; using selective breeding techniques and capitalizing on a chromosomal phenomenon known as polyploidy, hatchery seedlings are bred to have three chromosomes which can’t reproduce and don’t spawn. Jay explains, “Triploid oysters are same concept as seedless watermelon or any of your seedless fruits and vegetables... So, while wild oysters are putting all their energy into spawning in July, these oysters are just sitting there eating and getting big. Eating and getting big. So ours are just as good in July as they are in January.” Additionally, while wild oysters take three years to grow to market size, these oysters mature, on average, in 18 months.

Oyster cultivation on our coast holds much promise, as touted by proponents (1, 2, 3) in the state legislature, but many of the the challenges and barriers to restoration arise from conflict around the private leasing of a public trust, finding a robust strain of oysters suited for our waters, cost prohibitive barriers to entry and the stigma of aquaculture.

“In North Carolina we have public trust laws that preserve the waters for the benefit of the public,” says Erin of the Coastal Federation. The state’s bottom lease program dates back to 1858 and Erin says the push to privatize oysterizing waters for aquaculture in the early 1900s were met with much public concern. In 1991, the state leased its first water column, which includes the sound bottom to the water surface. Valerie Wunderly at the Division of Marine Fisheries reports, “As of September 2015, there are 110 acres of water column leases in the state.” 

Many coastal locals, particularly those in the Down East community near Core Sound, have seen their land taken away for preservation or development while fishing regulations threaten to cripple their livelihood. Guarded skepticism of leases is warranted. In Fish House Opera,  by Susan West and Barbara Garrity-Blake, Mary Gilgo of Atlantic explains, “Core Banks is our heritage. It belongs to me and to you. It’s a strip of Outer Banks where only God Almighty has the authority to say who can walk on it, who can fish on it, and who can clam on it. If you grant these leases, may God have mercy on your soul.” 

A current moratorium on leases in Core Sound represents the apex of controversy in the public trust debate. For commercial fisherman, access to our waters is the only thing allowing them to earn a meager living. Barring access to the sound, even in small quantities, is bound to incite fear. Historically, well-intentioned regulations have evolved into rules that harm the interests of local fisherman, whose voices get lost amidst larger political maneuvering. And it’s true: water column leases do and will restrict access to public areas for commercial boating and fishing. Many believe Core Sound, arguably one of the state’s cleanest and most productive bodies of water, offers an ideal environment to nurture North Carolina’s oyster economy. As a consequence, local fishing communities worry leases will be concentrated in waters in Core Sound if the moratorium is lifted. While the Division of Marine Fisheries has the ability to control the number and location of leases, the potential dense concentration of leases in historically active fishing waters is frightening to working class families who’ve seen their livelihoods devastated by fishing regulations. 

Is it possible to create policy that ensures fair and balanced access to all? Though current lease practices have safeguards against abuse of private leasing, these regulations are not fully refined. While many rules and regulations may not go far enough to satisfy the fears of commercial fishing communities, others are a barrier to oyster farmers. 

Currently, water column and bottom leases grant a maximum of 10-acre increments for shellfish harvesting. Individuals whose leases produce a required minimum yield, can apply annually up to a maximum total of 50 acres. Private leases are only granted in areas which the state, upon surveying, deems non-productive, meaning the area contains less than ten bushels of shellfish per acre. Areas with 10 or more bushels of shellfish per acre are reserved for wild harvesters, who have expressed concern that the productivity cap on leases may be too high. Many consider an acre with only a few bushels of shellfish to be a considerable resource for income. Opponents have also called into question the state’s surveying techniques. Fish House Opera recounts an instance in the late '90s during a Blue Ribbon Council for Oysters Committee meeting, when commercial harvesters challenged fishery officials by saying, “Let us sample those Core Banks sites that you think are unproductive. We’ll find the doggone clams!” Both groups, fishery officials and the fisherman, sampled the same area using different techniques. The Division’s sampling resulted in two clams in 480 samples. The fishermen's resulted in 198 clams in 139 samples. The Division rejected the fishermen’s technique. 

Jay, who was born and raised in one of North Carolina’s most historic fishing communities, Cedar Island, intimately understands the public’s mistrust but believes shellfish farms offer a unique opportunity to commercial fisherman who have suffered greatly since the ‘80s. “I try to explain to people, as much as we hate to see commercial fishing dying off, this is something that could at least allow some people an alternative… I think there are some commercial fisherman who are looking at the shellfish growing industry and saying, 'I don't know if I can fish like this the rest of my life because I'm getting regulated out.'  [Cultivation] is not going to be for everybody… but it gives someone who has wanted to work on the water their entire life, a way to work on the water. It’s just not tradition. You're still growing oysters, you're just doing it in a whole new way. And it's scalable. You can start out small, where you still fish, but do this supplementally. And if one of your fisheries drops off then you could scale up on this end,” says Jay. 

He continues, “We have to realize as [commercial] fishing is threatened by regulation that we have to do something. If nothing else, we have to let the kids have an opportunity to do something. I think they are the ones who are going to do this and embrace it. They aren't afraid of technology and are used to things changing. And they realize they can't necessarily do the same things their dad did.” 

While the public trust debate is a community and statewide discussion that affects the future of our farmed shellfish industry, other industry-centric challenges also exist. Currently, the majority of farmed oysters in North Carolina are from seedlings acquainted with colder, northern waters. Jay Styron says, “There is thinking that maybe the triploid [Eastern] oyster isn't as robust as a wild diploid [Eastern]oyster and that all these [triploid] hatchlings from Virginia and north aren't as accustomed to North Carolina's environment.” With this in mind, researchers at UNCW’s Shellfish Research Hatchery are working to develop a stock of triploid oysters selectively bred from wild stock adapted to North Carolina’s environment. Developing a robust, high-yield triploid oyster that naturally thrives in North Carolina’s waters is an important part of proving that oyster farming can be a viable industry in the state. 
There are financial barriers to entry for new growers, too. Jay estimates it takes between $20,000 and $30,000 to set up an acre for farming and nearly 18 months to bring the first harvest to market. Growing a sizable, profitable oyster farm takes upfront capital, commitment and work. 

The shellfish mariculture industry must also differentiate itself from the stigma associated with finfish aquaculture in order to thrive. “In general, aquaculture has gotten a bad rap because of feed or antibiotics,” says Erin, “But [oyster] mariculture isn’t like that at all… oysters are filter feeders so they are feeding what’s already in the water… It’s all largely a very natural process.”  The Rural Center reports, “Several pounds of plant and/or animal-based feed are required to grow one pound of farmed finfish,” but filter-feeding oysters, which only need clean water to grow, improve their environment instead of polluting it with excess feed.

Shellfish cultivation in North Carolina is well-poised to respond to growing public demand for safe and sustainable seafood yet, in 2007, aquaculture production in our state represented only 1.1% of the total shellfish produced along the East Coast. The Rural Center reports, “In 2012, North Carolina total shellfish aquaculture sales had a value of an estimated $908,975 – 97 percent less than the direct economic impact in Virginia. For every dollar of oysters from an aquaculture operation in North Carolina, $16.05 was sold in Virginia.” Despite the size of our estuarine system and the legacy of oystering in our state, North Carolina is unable to meet its own market demand for shellfish. 

State Senator Bill Cook (R-District 1) and Representative Paul Tine (I-District 6) have been two of shellfish mariculture’s biggest policy advocates, creating bipartisan support for the industry. In a 2015 September press release, Cook said, “The shellfish cultivation industry in North Carolina could be a much larger part of our economy. We import 75 percent of the oysters consumed in North Carolina, yet we have the second largest estuary system in the United States and the largest contained in one state.”

“There is not a lot of coastal industry in North Carolina, and this is an industry that could be promoted that would complement the region’s culture and tourism along the coast,” says Erin. She continues, “It dovetails really nicely with what we would want to preserve and promote along the coast. It’s not oil and gas or other types of industry.” The recently christened Virginia Oyster Trail, a tourism initiative that encourages people to sample the region specific flavors of oysters, proves Virginia, who proclaims itself as the Oyster Capital of the East Coast, is now capitalizing on the ever-growing cultural and culinary draw of oysters.

Some advocates for struggling coastal communities see government support of the shellfish industry as a way for the state to empower commercial fishing in the same way it has helped traditional farming communities innovate and thrive in the 21st century. Jay Styron believes the cultural moment is right for oysters. “This type of industry and enterprise fits perfectly into the slow food and locavore movement.” 

The history of the oyster-human encounter is a history characterized by intimacy and distance. They have been beyond knowing, beyond language, but as a food they are also naked, exposed, offered up to be consumed and swallowed in millions in Roman villas on ancient seashores, and, in more modern times, in restaurants and from oyster stalls.
— Rebecca Stott

To think solely of oysters as a commodity is missing the point. Legend and lore of these prehistoric mollusks have commanded our cultural imagination for millennia. Fabled to be a natural aphrodisiacs, as recently as 2007, when an Australian oyster farmer added actual Viagra to his oyster stock, chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force declared this unnecessary and described unadulterated Gulf Coast oysters as “Cajun Viagra.” 

From Dutch still-life painters to the architects of the Sydney Opera House, the mystery and form of oysters have captured the eyes and hearts of artists for centuries.  Raw, steamed, fried, stewed, baked, poached — these invertebrates are the backbone of many traditional North Carolinian coastal recipes and the main event at oyster roasts, events that bring people together during the coldest months of the year. They are a food of the elite and of the common man. Like wine, oysters take on the natural flavor of their habitat. To eat an oyster is to taste a place. 

"They carry the name of the place and its terroir,” says Jay Styron. “A lot of people say oysters have ‘merrior.’ They are this water and what they soak up. They are this algae. They are this salinity. It's all tied to this area.” 

The story of the Eastern Oyster — its past present and future — reveals much about our relationship with North Carolina’s most precious natural resource.  Whether or not we actualize our potential to become the “Napa Valley of Oysters,” as author Rowan Jacobsen suggests, the debate over oysters in North Carolina forces us to consider the health of our waters, the policies that have transformed coastal communities’ ways of life and how serious we are about sustainable investment in local economies.