Nothing says fall on the coast of North Carolina like the beginning of oyster season, when people pull out the fire grates and steamer pots and get ready to slurp down a salty treat.
But those pearls of delight need to be properly stored and chilled to ensure a healthy eating experience. The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries offers the following safety tips regarding oysters:
- Only purchase oysters from licensed dealers. These dealers are inspected and required to keep oysters under refrigeration and otherwise handle the product in a sanitary manner.
- If you harvest oysters for yourself, keep them shaded from the hot sun and refrigerate them as soon as possible.
- Once you have harvested or purchased the oysters, keep them cold. Shell oysters need to be kept at or below 45 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent bacterial growth.
- Thoroughly wash oysters prior to cooking. Remove all mud and dirt from the outside of the oyster, using a stiff brush and pressurized water.
- Store oysters away from other contaminants. Oysters can become contaminated by placing them on wet floors, splashing them with dirty water, or by contact with raw fish (including fish fluids) and other foods.
- Prior to cooking or raw consumption, discard dead oysters. Dead oysters will have slightly gaping shells that will not close when tapped. Once cooked or roasted oyster shells will naturally open.
- Those with compromised immune systems should fully cook all oysters before consumption. People with liver disease, alcoholism, diabetes, cancer, stomach or blood disorders or those on medication that weakens the immune system are at risk for a potentially serious or even fatal illness from the naturally occurring bacteria Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus.
Thoroughly cooking the oysters destroys Vibrio bacteria. To thoroughly cook oysters in the shell, either boil them in water for 3 to 5 minutes after the shells open or steam them in a steamer for 4 to 9 minutes after the shells open. Discard any oysters that do not open during cooking.
For cooking shucked oysters, follow these prevention tips from the CDC website:
- Boil for at least 3 minutes,
- Fry in oil for at least 3 minutes at 375° Fahrenheit,
- Broil 3 inches from heat for 3 minutes, or
- Bake at 450° Fahrenheit for 10 minutes.
Harvest of oysters by hand methods from public bottom opens at sunrise Oct. 15.Recreational hand harvest is allowed sunrise to sunset seven days a week. The harvest limit is one bushel of oysters per person per day or two bushels per vessel per day if more than one person is on a boat. No license is required for recreational harvest, but the oysters may not be sold.
The minimum size limit is 3-inches shell length.
Those who hold proper commercial fishing licenses may harvest oysters from sunrise to sunset Monday through Friday each week. Commercial hand harvest limits are different for some waters and by license type. Commercial fishermen should see Proclamation SF-9-2021 for specific hand harvest regulations.
Some waters are permanently closed to shellfishing, and other waters may temporarily close to shellfish harvest due to high bacteria levels associated with rainfall and stormwater runoff. Fishermen should check here for shellfish closures. Fishermen should continue to frequently check for shellfish closures throughout the year, particularly after heavy rains. They may also call the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries at 252-726-7021 or 1-800-682-2632 to check for closures.