By Connie Leinbach
Islanders and visitors can look forward to eating Ocracoke-grown oysters in July of next year thanks to a new business, the Devil Shoals Oyster Company.
Owned by “Clamlady Jane” and the Fletcher O’Neal family, the oysters are being cultivated in Jane’s five-acre lease in the Pamlico Sound.
The players in this game are placing the spats of hybrid oysters now, but they won’t be full-grown for about another year.
“It’s exciting,” said Heather O’Neal, Fletcher’s wife, as she, Fletcher, two of their sons and two friends set the “nursery bags” on a recent Saturday afternoon.
The O’Neals own Captain Puddleducks Seafood, which cooks a seafood feast and delivers it to your door.
Jane and the O’Neals recently received a $15,000 revolving loan from Hyde County, courtesy of a Golden Leaf Foundation grant to the county for business loans.
Heather explained that while local oysters from Swan Quarter and Wanchese are the ones people eat on the island, the wild oyster population has dwindled in recent years.
The oysters the company is growing are hybrids that don’t reproduce, she said, and they tend to take on the taste of where they grow.
“These will be true Ocracoke oysters,” she said. “I’ve tasted them, and they’re really good.”
Unlike wild oysters that are available in months with the letter “R,” these hybrid oysters will be harvested throughout the warm seasons, or about April to October, Heather said.
Jane (not her real name) has been in the clam business for decades, selling her clams out of the Ocracoke Seafood Co., (known as The Fish House).
But Hurricane Arthur last July 4 destroyed almost all of her clam beds at their location in the Sound off the end of the Hammock Hills Nature Trail.
While she has re-sown her clams, they take longer to grow than oysters and so won’t be ready for several more years.
In the meantime, Jane and the O’Neals are floating the plastic mesh oyster bags in another section of the water. Each bag is attached to a rope stretched across Jane’s leased area. They are placing 40 bags now and want to eventually float 300 to 400 bags.
They began with 100,000 seed oysters, or spat, Jane said.
Each bag holds 250 to 300 baby oysters, and as they get larger, the group has to cull out the larger ones and put them in different bags to give them growing space.
After the last cull—when the oysters are larger–they will be put in grow-out cages, Heather said.
“This is just one system,” Jane said, as she and a reporter waded in the shallow water of the Devil Shoals and scrubbed the bags of algae.
“There are several different systems,” she explained. “This is what the people down Sound use. When you do something like this you try several different systems and see what you like the best.”
Clearing the bags of sea grass and algae is crucial for the sun to get to the spat, Jane said. Every couple of days, the bags have to be cleaned and flipped over.
As the brushing progressed on a warm August day, the distant hush of the ocean and the calls of shorebirds were the only sounds.
Jane, a former office worker, has been working in the water since the 1970s when she arrived on Ocracoke from the hurly-burly of urban America. A member of Ocracoke Working Waterman Association, Jane sold her clams to the Fish House sold for many years prior to last summer’s hurricane.
She steers her Carolina Skiff past Oyster Creek and onward toward the Devil Shoals without the aid of a depth finder.
“When you do this enough you know where the deep water is,” she said. “But sometimes I run aground.”
That goes with the realm of boating and doesn’t faze her.
She wouldn’t trade her job on the water.
She smiles as she says, “It beats cubicle life.”