December 30, 2015

Oysters tell the story of our coast

STORY BY RYAN STANCIL AND SANDRA DAVIDSON
PHOTOS 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.

THE OYSTER'S STORY

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 foods 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 residents 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 people who argued that 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 state 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 percent 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.

A REBIRTH

The wild oyster populations of other east coast states have experienced similar challenges. According to NOAA, Virginia’s

current wild harvest levels are 1 percent or less of historical levels. But unlike North Carolina, Virginia has created a $55.9-million-dollar shellfish aquaculture industry, over 30 percent of which come from oysters. These oysters are raised by a new generatio

n 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 N.C. Rural Center defines the mariculture spectrum broadly: oyster bed restoration and sanctuary development are considered the most passive interventions 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 Fleckenstein says “There is still work to be done to restore reefs. They are important and critical,” she explains. “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, such as 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.”

Styron is assistant director of Marine Operations at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Marine Science Center by week. He started Carolina Mariculture seven years ago when there were only a few active growers.

“I knew I wasn’t going work for the state forever and this is something I could set up as a retirement job,” he says.

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, Styron vividly remembers the heyday of oysters on our coast. “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,” he recalls. “There were just mounds of oysters. But they just aren’t here anymore.”

OYSTERS ARE GOOD BUSINESS

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.” Styron continues. “We get (the seedlings from hatcheries) when they are 1 to 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 cages 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 Styron. 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 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. Styron 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 along the N.C. coast holds much promise, as touted by proponents in the state legislature, but many of 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 Fleckenstein, a scientist with of the N.C. Coastal Federation.

The state’s bottom-lease program dates back to 1858 and Fleckenstein says the push to privatize oyster waters for aquaculture in the early 1900s was 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 N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries reports that as of September there are 110 acres of water column leases.

GUARDED SKEPTICISM

Many coastal locals, particularly those in the Down East community of eastern Carteret County have seen their land taken away for preservation or development while fishing regulations, they say, threaten to cripple their livelihood. For them, guarded skepticism of leases seems 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 is bound to incite fear. And it’s true: water column leases do and will restrict access to public areas for boating and fishing.

Many believe Core Sound, 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 that leases will be concentrated in waters in Core Sound if the moratorium is lifted. While the fisheries division can control the number and location of leases, the potential dense concentration of leases in historically active fishing waters frightens fishing families.

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.

Jay Styron was born and raised in one of North Carolina’s most historic fishing communities, Cedar Island in far eastern Carteret County. He intimately understands the public’s mistrust but believes shellfish farms offer a unique opportunity to commercial fisherman.

“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,” he explains. “(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.”

OTHER CHALLENGES

While the public trust debate is a discussion that affects the future of our farmed shellfish industry, other challenges also exist. Currently, the majority of farmed oysters in North Carolina are from seedlings from colder, northern waters.

“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,” Styron says.

With this in mind, researchers at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Shellfish +Research Hatchery are working to develop a stock of triploid oysters selectively bred from wild stock adapted to the state’s coastal waters. 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. Styron estimates that it takes $20,000-$30,000 to farm an acre of oysters 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 set itself apart from fish farming to thrive, Fleckenstein says. “In general, aquaculture has gotten a bad rap because of feed or antibiotics,” she notes. “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 N.C. Rural Economic Development Center reports that several pounds of plant- or animal-based feed are required to grow one pound of farmed fish but that filter-feeding oysters, which only need clean water to grow, improve their environment instead of polluting with waste.

Shellfish cultivation in North Carolina is well-poised to respond to growing public demand for safe and sustainable seafood yet, in 2007, aquaculture production represented 1.1 percent of the total shellfish produced along the East Coast.

North Carolina total shellfish aquaculture sales in 2012 had a value of an estimated $908,975 – 97 percent less than the direct economic impact in Virginia, the center reports. 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.

“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 Fleckenstein. “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.”

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 20th century.

Styron thinks the cultural moment is right for oysters. “This type of industry and enterprise fits perfectly into the slow food and locavore movement,” he says.

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. 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 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 realize 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.

(The story is reprinted with permission from Bit + Grain, a new website devoted to telling the story of North Carolina – its people, places and culture.)


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