In the late-19th century, more than 800,000 bushels were being harvested from North Carolina waters and shipped to New York and California. By 1994, only around 119,000 bushels of oysters were being harvested.
Considered a delicacy on many levels, it has become painfully clear that the wild stock has taken a major hit over the years due to over-harvesting, water quality and other natural occurrences.
However, thanks to the efforts of Outer Banks locals, like the Smith, Daniels and O’Neal families, some of the pressure is being relieved on wild oysters.
A true waterman to the core, Bobby Smith has spent the majority of his life on the waters surrounding the Outer Banks and has a deep respect for all of its diversity.
“I’ve been thinking about farming oysters in our area for the last 8-10 years,” Smith says. “The goal isn’t to replace the wild ones, only to give them a break.”
With a bit of research and development on Prince Edward Island — as well as assistance from the Daniels family (Wanchese Fish Company) and the O’Neals (Devil Shoal Oysters) — this dream is now becoming a reality.
And it’s one that we can all benefit from.
Highly efficient, a single oyster is able to filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, removing harmful material and excess sediment from the water. Oyster beds also provide housing for a diverse range of aquatic creatures like crabs, clams and fish — not to mention that the systematic little bivalves create a lifeline for the local fishing industry here in North Carolina and elsewhere.
Growing them is a different story.
“It’s a very tedious process,” Smith says. “Usually, it takes about a year and a half to grow an oyster, but because of where we are located with high currents, they are able to grow more quickly.”
Smith says their oysters are self-sustaining, “so we don’t have to feed them. We just provide the space for them to grow.”
With right around 4 acres just inside Oregon Inlet, which he leases from the state, these shoals are proving to be a happy oyster sanctuary.
“Currently, we have around 300,000 oysters in the water and by the end of the summer we should have 800,000,” Smith says, adding because of the location, the setup is a bit different than what one would usually imagine as an oyster bed.
Smith, along with the help of his wife and daughter, set out 150 feet of long line upon which 12 cages in a row are attached and float along the surface. Each cage contains six bags of teeny, tiny oyster seeds; about the size of a fingernail.
“One bag alone might have 4000 seeds,” he says, “but after about a month-and-a-half, that bag is ready to burst so we have to divide them out into additional nursery bags. By the end of the growth period, each bag will contain around 250 full grown oysters.”
But what about the belief that oysters only can be harvested during the months containing the letter ‘R’?
“It actually depends on what type of oyster it is,” Smith says, adding the triploid oysters he is uses are sterile, grow faster than their wild counterparts and provide a steady, year-round supply for markets. “Plus, because ours are higher in the water column, are exposed to heavy currents and tidal fluctuations, these oysters are able to get all the nutrients they need and are very clean.”
In places such as Prince Edward Island, it can take as long as seven years for oysters to reach maturity. After only nine months, Smith and a buddy from Ocracoke will take Smith’s first official harvest up to New York to participate in the Billion Oyster Project, a nonprofit ecosystem restoration and education project that endeavors to restore one billion live oysters to New York Harbor by 2030.
“The goal is for restaurants, oyster farmers and inner city kids to release a billion oysters into the New York Harbor and restore its once productive habitat.”
Because of folks like Smith, toxic reefs will be given a second chance.
“When the shells are released, it gives the wild oysters something to attach themselves to when they are spawning,” Smith says. “There’s a lot that goes into an endeavor such as this, but it’s all worth it because we love where we live.”
Fran Marler has lived on the Outer Banks for 11 years. She estimates 60 percent of her life on the Banks is spent fishing, boating, surfing, swimming and enjoying the bountiful beauty of the Outer Banks..