Ocracoke’s oystering tradition is ready to make a comeback
By PAT GARBER
the oddly shaped shellfish Crassostrea virginica, better known as the
common oyster, has long been an important part of Ocracoke
Island’s fishing tradition, and freshly gathered oysters one of
her finest culinary delights.
fisherman and shellfish researcher Gene Ballance explains that for his
grandfather, Elisha Ballance Sr., oystering was the main source of
income in the winter. He and other Ocracoke fishermen sailed their
skiffs into Pamlico Sound and gathered the oysters using hand-held
tongs. They sold them to what were called “buy boats,”
which took the shellfish to New Bern, N.C., or sent them to such places
as Washington, N.C., on freight boats.
Al Styron, the owner of the grocery called Styron’s store, lost
his life one winter day while oystering in Pamlico Sound. His boat was
recovered but his body was never found.
Ocracoke fishermen and residents look forward to winter days when they
can feast on the odd little shellfish, eating them raw, roasted,
steamed, or fried.
past December, however, at the Ocracoke Working Watermen’s
Association’s (OWWA) annual oyster roast, all the oysters had to
be bought from Swan Quarter. Ocracoke’s oysters were too scarce
Oyster communities, or reefs, as they are called, are important for
many reasons other than their culinary desirability. They create
important habitat where many other aquatic species live and feed, and
they filter and cleanse the water as they feed on plankton.
As Ocracokers realized over the past fall that most of the offshore
oyster reefs were dead, they wondered what had killed them. The first
thought that came to many people’s minds was
“pollution.” Everyone has heard stories about shellfish bed
closures along the North Carolina mainland due to run-off from
agri-businesses and sewage plants, and oystering is no longer allowed
in Silver Lake or along certain other shores of the island because of
According to Gene Ballance, however, most of Ocracoke’s waters
are still clean and safe for oysters. The culprit, according to
Ballance, was the dry weather that plagued the state during the last
dry years when there is less rainfall to dilute the salt in the waters
of Pamlico Sound, salinity increases. Ocracoke, being close to Atlantic
Ocean inlets, typically has a higher salinity than mainland areas, such
as Swan Quarter, which receive more freshwater from rivers. Oysters
require a certain level of salinity to thrive--somewhere between 12 and
18 parts per thousand, which in normal years Ocracoke has.
Some of the water around Ocracoke tested as high as 30 parts last year,
however, and the oysters could not survive. Oysters in waters nearer
the mainland thrived as the salinity there reached ideal conditions,
which is why the Ocracoke Watermen’s Association was able to
obtain a healthy crop from Swan Quarter.
Why is the
salinity level so important for the oysters’ well-being?
of the reasons, explained Ballance, is because one of the
oyster’s main predators, the boring sponge, thrives in salty
water. The sponge secretes an acid which bores holes in the
oysters’ shells, causing them to be brittle and vulnerable to
other predators, such as crabs.
crabs and sometimes tiny mud crabs have always preyed on
Ocracoke’s oysters, but now there is a new danger. Stone crabs,
once rare in these waters, have been migrating north, possibly because
of climate change and global warming. They have become an increasing
threat to oyster beds, and in a year when high salt levels encouraged
boring sponge predation and extra vulnerability, they may have been the
proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Disturbing as this situation is, it is far from hopeless.
Ocracoke’s oyster beds have existed for hundreds of years, and
they have seen natural and human-induced declines before. There is a
plan in place for replanting them, and the Ocracoke Foundation’s
oyster restoration project is already underway.
shallow draft barge was purchased with funding from the Golden LEAF
Foundation, which received money from the tobacco settlement to help
communities create and maintain jobs. The barge, named the Francis
Winslow II, will be used to replant Ocracoke’s shallow reef
oyster beds, identified on a map created by U. S. Naval officer Francis
Winslow II in 1888. The map identifies about 6,000 features that will
help scientists determine where to plant the oysters.
“Planting oysters” really means setting out cultch material
(a substrate of seasoned oyster shells or sometimes scallop or broken
clam shells) for swimming oyster larvae to attach to. Seasoned shells
are those that have been dried out for six months to a year, so that
parasites and predators such as oyster drills are no longer attached to
them, and they form a slick surface.
for planting the oysters is critical. Oysters spawn in summer,
producing larvae that swim around until they find a place to attach.
Once attached, the young oysters, known as spats, never move again.
The larvae compete with barnacles and other organisms for appropriate
substrate, so it is important to set out the cultch when the oyster
larvae start moving around and can get there first. That happens when
the water temperature is around 68 degrees, typically in June or when
crabbing season ends.
should be a good year to plant the oysters, Balance says, since El Nino
weather patterns call for a wet season, with better salinity levels.
The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries already has five major
oyster spawning sanctuaries in Pamlico Sound. One is two miles north of
the sunken dredge Lehigh near Ocracoke.
monies for funding the oyster restoration project come from the newly
created American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRK), which is better
known as the stimulus plan.
Fisheries recently sent out an announcement the agency will be hiring
fishermen to plant oyster shells in four coastal counties this spring,
including Hyde County, of which Ocracoke is part.
who are interested in participating can call Clay Caroon, the head of
the cultch planting program, at 252-808-8058.
Ballance and other Ocracoke watermen are optimistic that the oyster
restoration project will be a success, and that Ocracoke’s
shallow-water oyster reefs will be providing habitat, clean water, and
good eating in a few years.