Oysters: Raw delicacy or climate warrior?

Oyster farmer Ryan Bethea spends as much time behind the wheel of a refrigerated truck as he does on the water.

Since 2015, Bethea has been raising salted shellfish on five acres in Westmouth Bay, an estuary off Harkers Island, North Carolina. All the hundreds of thousands of oysters cultivated on his farm, Caroline oysters, are sold in Tar Heel State, where Bethea hopes to make fresh oysters affordable and accessible to everyone, “It doesn’t matter what their means or where they live, even if it’s in a food desert.” That’s why he only charges a dollar for an oyster and offers free deliveries, from Raleigh to Charlotte via Roxboro and Friendship. The oysters travel from the sea to the kitchen on the same day.

Bethea’s business model has attracted a lot of attention.

“When I started telling people in the industry that I was going to offer free shipping, they thought I was completely crazy, and some of them were crazy,” Bethea says. “I guess that’s how most industries are when a disruptor joins you.”

In 2011, after learning about the state’s fledgling oyster industry, Bethea, then a bartender and eighth-grade science teacher at the time, decided to make a career change. He enrolled in an oyster farming program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, completed two internships, and rented a site in the estuary, all without any real experience in oyster farming.

“I’ve always been very proud of North Carolina, and I read the article and thought I could be part of an industry that would help our state and work on the water to grow something. delicious and eco-friendly thing, ”he said. remember. “It struck me: this is what I have to do. And now that he does, Bethea, who identifies as Métis, is drawing on her education background to inspire the next generation of coastal entrepreneurs, and one who is more diverse.

Bethea oyster cages near Harkers Island

Oysters 101

Raising oysters is fairly straightforward. Bethea purchases oyster seeds (i.e. very small oysters) from local farms when they are about half an inch in diameter. Then he puts the baby oysters in plastic bags which are placed in wire cages at the bottom of the ocean. Every few weeks, Bethea flies a skiff a mile from shore to the rental site to check their progress. After cleaning the shells and sorting the bivalves, he moves the larger oysters he finds in larger bags. The slowest growing oysters can take up to two years to grow large enough to harvest.

On the Oysters Carolina farm, Bethea currently operates 70 cages that together hold 250,000 oysters. And for each of these animals that Bethea puts in the water, the environment benefits.

Oysters act as natural filtration systems. In fact, a single adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water each day, removing pollutants such as nitrogen that can cause algae blooms. Blooms deplete the water column of oxygen, suffocating fish and leading to reduced animal and plant diversity and poor water quality.

To 2021 report of the North Carolina Coastal Federation found that pollution is the greatest threat to oysters. The runoff containing high levels of bacteria has permanently closed more than a third of North Carolina’s coastal waters to shellfish harvesting.

“Oyster farmers put tens of millions of filterers in the water every year… and provide excellent service,” says Chris Matteo, Acting President of the North Carolina Shellfish Association. “Filtration is probably the main ecosystem benefit of oysters. “

And then there are the reefs themselves, which form when the oyster shells merge as they grow. These vast shell structures provide habitat for many marine species, from shrimp and stone crabs to striped bass and speckled trout. According to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, oyster reefs also act as natural breakwaters, reducing erosion and protecting coastal communities from storm surges and sea level rise.

Close-up of oyster reef created by researchers at the Institute of Marine Sciences, Morehead City, March 2021

Johnny Andrews / UNC-Chapel Hill

It is another vital ecosystem service, especially for a state where the sea level has been increasing by about an inch every two years due to the impacts of climate change. In addition to experiencing warmer, more humid and more humid weather, and more frequent and severe hurricanes, North Carolinians are also witnessing a struggling housing market. Oyster farmers hope they can help solve at least some of these problems.

In 2019 alone, the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Division received 106 applications for shellfish leases—A sharp increase over the 240 requests recorded during the previous decade. The rise comes at a time when wild oyster populations are declining due to pollution, overexploitation, habitat loss and hurricanes.

“With a growing population, we cannot meet the demand [for oysters] with the wild harvest, ”says Bethea. “If we take everything [of the wild oysters] outside, there won’t be any more. Oyster farming reduces the harvesting pressure exerted on their wild cousins.

“The populations of wild oysters are really greatly reduced,” says Lisa Suatoni, deputy director of the oceans division at the NRDC. “Oyster farms help restore habitat that has been seriously threatened while providing significant ecological value. “

The fourth edition of a national plan for the restoration and protection of oyster populations, “Oyster restoration and protection plan for North Carolina: a 2021-2025 action plan, Released earlier this year, aims to boost sustainable oyster farming while maximizing the ecological benefits of shellfish. Education is key to the plan’s success, and with her experience, Bethea was quick to seize the opportunity.

Bethea speaking at the North Carolina Shellfish Initiative announcement

Coastal Federation of North Carolina

Reef Recruitment

Bethea may have traded shakers and chalkboards for waders, but he’s still an artist and educator at heart. At fundraisers, conferences, parties, shell boils and other events, he shows off his flaking and absorption skills, while answering questions about oyster farming.

“A very small number of people in Carteret County, where I farm oysters, know all about oyster farming and, if they did, they might decide to do it,” he says. “We are always trying to make guys change [from commercial fishing] to oyster farming.

As part of its commitment to education, Bethea organizes tours and gives presentations to civic groups like the Durham Lions Club and the Boys and Girls Club of Carteret County. He serves oysters while talking about environmental and economic development and career opportunities to visiting students.

“We want to show that you can still live in Carteret County and make money working on the water while being a good steward of the environment,” Bethea said. “We also want to show them that a minority can own a business. It’s not “this person is black and does this”. It is “he is an oyster farmer who also happens to be biracial”. It is a representation in a non-symbolic way.

He also just revealed his new business: a one-acre property on Harkers Island, just a mile from his offshore farm, will be the future site of an education and event center. This is all part of its goal of supporting the shellfish industry. As the number of oyster farmers continues to grow, Bethea says, “We’re ready to put North Carolina oysters on the map.”

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