oyster season opened in North Carolina on Oct.. 15, and officials
with the state Division of Marine Fisheries believe the harvest will
be a good one in most areas.
relatively small daily commercial limit in southern waters of five
bushels per person or 10 bushels per operation in some waters has
some fishermen griping, but it will be just fine with waterman Sammy
Corbett of Hampstead.
plenty,” said Corbett, a member of the N.C.
Marine Fisheries Commission,
the policy-making arm of the division. “Some people would like to
raise it to 10, but I’m dead set against it. We’ve got a decent
population of oysters, but there are just so many people who will be
out there down in this area. We haven’t been able to get any shell
planted the last couple of years, and we can’t just keep taking
without putting something back.”
fisheries division, because of budget cuts, largely eliminated its
shell recycling program, although it still operates on a very small
scale. As a result, Corbett said, a program that had been a
tremendous help – the shells attract oyster spat that generally
grow to 3-inch market-legal size within three years – has gone
dormant, and pressure on the stock has not and will not decrease.
Corbett said, a man who works hard can earn good money on five
bushels a day. “You’ll probably get $30 to $35 a bushel, five
days a week,” he said. “That’s $150 or so a day, $750 a week if
the weather allows you to get out every day. That’s more than most
Hardy, lead oyster biologist for the division, said that state
sampling has found lots of oysters, particularly around Pamlico Sound
and in typical harvest areas of Carteret County.
fact, Hardy said, the apparent healthy state of the oyster population
– so far – was actually a little surprising, given the water
temperature and weather conditions along the coast this spring and
of that, there’d been some thought of delaying the usual Oct. 15
harvest opening, but officials agreed on Oct. 2 there was no reason
to do so.
had a lot of rain, and the water temperature is still pretty warm,”
Hardy said. “Given that, you’d think it might not be so good, but
there seem to be good numbers most places.
south (Cape Fear area) doesn’t seem to be quite as good – the
water’s even warmer down there – but overall, if nothing changes,
it looks like it might be a pretty good year.”
reason for the relatively rosy early outlook is that dermo, the
parasitic disease that ravaged state oyster beds for years and killed
the shellfish before they reached legal harvest size, has been
declining in prevalence.
said the disease thrives in salty, dry conditions, which have been
the general rule, but oysters might finally be developing resistance.
been hoping that for a long time, and although there’s not really
been much research, it looks to me like it’s happening,” he said.
“We’ve had a good bit of rain this year, but before this it’s
been pretty dry – that’s what Dermo likes – and we’ve been
seeing (the prevalence) of it going down for some time.”
the oyster stock and the harvest have been rebounding in recent
years, to the point that Hardy, with a tiny bit of hesitation, now
calls it “stable.”
2013, N.C. watermen landed 586,689 pounds of oysters, worth $3.35
million, according to reports the division compiled from the
harvesters. That was up from 440,063 pounds worth $2.57 million in
2012, but well below the 800,453 pounds and $4.48 million in 2011.
Still, last year’s figures were generally in line with a recent
positive trend in one of the state’s oldest fisheries, which was in
big trouble a couple of decades ago.
1987, the commercial harvest totaled 1.42 million pounds worth $2.88
million. By 1994, after a decade or more of dermo, it had hit its
low, of about 184,000 pounds, and the harvest didn’t top 300,000
pounds again until 2005.
not a lot if you go way back – in the 1880s, according to Joel
Fodrie, a researcher at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences in
Morehead City. Historic catch rates in North Carolina were at 5
million pounds of oyster meat harvested each year, he noted, -- but
thanks to a variety of factors, including habitat loss and shellfish
water pollution, nobody thinks those days will ever come back.
Hardy believes the stock, buoyed by the state’s shell planting
efforts and similar projects by the N.C. Coastal Federation and other
private groups, is probably sustainable within reasonable variation
and with sensible limits. The division’s 2014 stock status report
lists the oyster as a species of “concern,” but Hardy thinks the
agency’s season-opening proclamation set those reasonable limits.
can be taken by hand and hand-operated implements only. Oysters may
not be transferred from the harvesting vessel to any other vessel
during oyster harvesting operations or be transported by any vessel
other than the vessel in which they are harvested, in order to enable
the division to keep close tabs on the harvest. It is also unlawful
to possess commercial and recreational limits of oysters aboard the
same vessel, and it’s unlawful to sell oysters taken on Saturday
and Sunday from public bottom. Commercial oyster harvest will be
allowed Monday through Friday of each week.
fishermen can take oysters for personal consumption only and are
limited to one bushel a day, not to exceed two bushels per vessel per
day. Oysters must be at least three inches long.
Morris, a commercial fisherman in Atlantic in eastern Carteret
County, has been oystering for seven or eight years and plans to be
out there again this year. He said he hasn’t “looked around” to
see what’s available yet, but noted that last year was pretty good
and “I left some good oysters out there” when the season ended.
on that, he said, “I feel like there ought to be a pretty good crop
out there. There are some good natural rocks and some that have been
planted by the state. Like everything else in commercial fishing,
though, it runs in cycles, it comes and goes. You never know for
he said, are partly dependent upon weather and climate, but also
partly dependent upon effort. For example, the recent upswing in
oysters has been somewhat uneven, and part of the reason is
five or six years ago, we had some really good years, and there
weren’t that many people doing it,” he said. “But then the
economy collapsed and the construction died and a lot of people got
back into it. That influx of people had an effect on it.”
he feels pretty good about the current state oysters, Hardy would
like to be able to do more to improve the stock. “I’d like to do
more, but budget cuts haven’t just affected the fisheries division,
they’ve affected all of state government,” he said. “The good
thing is that I think people do care about the oyster stock, partly
because of oysters’ positive impact on water quality, and people
want to help.”
federation, for example, has for years now been planting oyster
shells, forming reefs that both enhance the stock, filter the water
and serve as effective natural alternatives to shoreline erosion
control structures, such as bulkheads. And the division, Hardy said,
is looking at ways to continue its habitat enhancement work at a
of the problem, he said, has been a significant rise in the price of
oyster shells, as more states and groups have gotten involved in
planting efforts. So the state is studying the use of other
materials, such as crushed concrete, that cost less. The idea is to
plant alternative materials side-by-side with oyster shells and
examine the results.
is also encouraged by a continued increase in interest in oyster
mariculture. Although entrepreneurs have long farmed clams, and
watermen have held leases of public bottom on which to grow oysters
and to transfer oysters from polluted waters, some are now growing
oysters caged in the water, not on the traditional oyster rocks.
operated by Jay Styron off Cedar Island in Carteret County, grow
oysters in floating cages, suspended in the water on rope lines. The
shellfish grown this way don’t get covered in the mud, and they
grow as singles, not in clusters. They are rounded – more
attractive to consumers who like them “on the half shell” – and
they bring a higher price. Restaurants like these oysters, Corbett
said, because they’re more reliable, not as subject to the caprices
guy I know sells them all summer to restaurants and he makes a good
living,” said Corbett, the fisheries commission member from
Hampstead. It’s a pretty oyster, much better than what you get that
time of year from Louisiana, and it sells for 65 to 70 cents apiece.
That might not sound that good, but it’s a premium price. If you’re
selling wild oysters by the bushel, you might not get more than a
thinks oyster mariculture will continue to grow. He also noted that
some are using triploid oysters – they don’t reproduce so they
grow faster, reaching market size in two years – and he’s excited
about the future of the growing sector of the fishery.
is still some resistance to mariculture. Folks are accustomed to
wild-caught seafood, and the typical N.C. commercial fisherman is
fiercely independent and reluctant to give up his way of life. Hardy
doesn’t want to see that disappear, either, and thinks there’s
plenty of room for both oyster fisheries. And both, he said,
contribute to water quality preservation and enhancement because all
oysters, wild or farmed filter out pollutants as they feed.
Schill, president of the New Bern-based N.C.
the state’s largest trade and lobbying group for commercial
watermen, said he still thinks that the oyster fishery is
important, both to those who profit from it and from the water
part of the state’s culture, too,” he said. “We as an
organization probably aren’t as involved in it as we should be, not
as pro-active, but part of that is we have so many other battles to
fight and our resources have been limited. Plus, the old saying that,
‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’ is true. We don’t hear as
much about the oyster fishery from our members as we do about big
issues, such as inside trawling. But there’s no doubt it’s an
important fishery, and we certainly support efforts to improve it.”
does Earl Taylor, owner of T&W Oyster Bar on N.C. 58 in the
Peletier community in western Carteret County. Nearly two weeks
before the opening of the season, customers were clamoring for local
oysters, he said.
had a lot of people asking when we’re going to get them,” said
the owner of a restaurant that for decades has thrived, despite its
out-of-the-way location, because of its reputation for excellent
oysters. “In fact, they’ve been asking since August.”
gets most of his oysters from the Newport River area, and said he
doesn’t really know quite what to expect this year.
haven’t really heard much,” he said. “Most of the guys I
normally buy from are still shrimping and haven’t had much time to
look around yet. But we had a real good year last year – lots of
really pretty and big local oysters – and I’m hoping it’ll be
at least as good or better this year.”
(This story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the
coastal news and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You
can read other stories about the North Carolina coast at