By Richard Taylor
As charter members of the new North Carolina Oyster Trail, Ocracoke Mariculture has added educational tourism to its thriving oyster-farming business.
Ocracoke Mariculture is operated by Fletcher and Heather O’Neal, who have been growing their popular eastern oysters off Devil Shoals since 2015.
They are part of the N.C. Oyster Trail, which began in May 2020 as a project of North Carolina Coastal Federation, N.C. Sea Grant and the N.C. Shellfish Growers Association, with the purpose to teach oysters’ value for eating and protecting the environment.
The oyster industry “shellebrates” its tasty product during N.C. Oyster Week Oct. 11 to 15.
In addition to Ocracoke Mariculture, island trail members include Woccocon Oysters, Howard’s Pub & Raw Bar, Ocracoke Oyster Company, Plum Pointe Kitchen and The Flying Melon.
“The Oyster Trail is a great resource to help connect growers and restaurants with the public,” said Sarah Bodin of the North Carolina Coastal Federation.
This cultural food trail teaches about the oyster’s food value and its environmental benefits. Oyster farming contributes $20 million to the state’s seafood economy — a figure the industry hopes will grow to $100 million by 2030.
Islander Stevie Wilson began a new oyster farm this year, The Ocock Oyster Company, and his four-acre lease is in the Devil Shoals area of the Pamlico Sound beside the O’Neal’s, Woccocon and Clam Lady Jane’s farms.
Wilson hopes to begin harvesting his oysters by the winter or the spring.
An oysterer who harvested the bivalves manually with tongs for 30 years and who previously owned Woccocon Oysters, Wilson said he’s happy to be growing oysters again.
“I think there’s plenty of market for all of what is grown,” he said about Ocracoke’s farmers.
This summer, the O’Neals began the Mariculture Farm Tours and sunset trips.
“Mariculture is a way Fletcher can be happy working on the water,” Heather said. “It’s a year-round thing.” Their son Hunter, one of the couple’s five children, works the farm.
The O’Neals grow a hybrid of the Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica, the state oyster). The hybrids don’t reproduce, thus allowing them to become plump and juicy – excellent for eating, Wilson explained.
Oyster farmers buy hybrid seeds each year and oysters mature in 10 to 12 months.
Tending their farm takes daily work.
“We handle them six days a week, turning and moving the cages,” Fletcher said.
Since oysters are filter feeders and eat algae, they clean the water and thus the environment.
“They ingest all these particles and produce a substance that encapsulates the pollutants, which then drops to the bottom,” said Heather, who also is the exceptional children’s teacher assistant at Ocracoke School.
“They’re not taking anything out of the water except for the things that shouldn’t be out there,” Fletcher added.
Farm tour trips take visitors on a bumpy, exhilarating 10-mile adventure aboard a Carolina Skiff from the Community Square docks out to their oyster farm.
There, patrons get to see first-hand, and taste, how hard work and patience produce great-tasting oysters prized by fine chefs all along the East Coast.
Out in the water, the O’Neals dump freshly harvested oysters onto a culling table, sort them by size and place the oysters into plastic totes.
“Everything’s done right out there on the farm,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher said that hurricanes and marine engine oil residue have no effect on oysters.
The family prepares the harvest for market at their Lighthouse Road home then sends them off — locally to the Ocracoke Seafood Company, Native Seafood, DAJIO, The Flying Melon, Plum Pointe Kitchen; and to other locations up the beach, Raleigh and to neighboring states.
The O’Neals say oyster-farming regulations are not as stringent as for the commercial fishing industry.
“They monitor us to make sure we farm inside the right area,” Fletcher said. “You have to plant and produce so much during a year just to keep your lease.”
The O’Neals look forward to farming a new five-acre lease just outside Silver Lake soon.
“This new system will be a whole lot less labor intensive than what we’re using now,” Fletcher said. “We’re also going to be raising some clams and try scallops again. We love what we’re doing.”