Monday, March 21, 2011

Shellfish Relay

Walk the plank, mateys!  (It's for a good cause)
From Oriental we pressed seaward on the wide Neuse River, then north up a narrow channel past the shrimp dock at Hobucken. Then, with brisk winds and a following sea, we made a run across the Pamlico River to the tiny town of Belhaven . . .  a welcome haven indeed after a day of jolting on the bounding main.

Back around Wrightsville Beach, we spotted an odd vessel--a boat with a conveyor belt bolted to one side. As the boat meandered just outside the channel, the conveyor belt rumbled, dropping what looked like large chunks of gravel into the water. What the heck?!

After some research, I finally figured out what that boat was doing.  It was a shellfish relay.

I know. The term suggests images of elementary school kids in track shoes, running back and forth with jumbo shrimp as batons.  But actually, a shellfish relay is one way states manage their oyster and clam harvests.

As far as I understand it, fisheries managers move oysters around for a couple of reasons.

One big reason to move oysters (or their shells) is to bring oysters back to places where they have been wiped out.  The oyster harvest in North Carolina today is about 2 percent of what it was back in its heyday.  In 2010, the state spread more than 200,000 bushels of shell in an effort to jumpstart new oyster reef growth.

Tonging for oysters.  Backbreaking work!
Back on Jekyll Island, Georgia, we had scoped out oyster shell recycling stations. The state has a program where the leftovers from backyard "oyster roasts" are returned to the ocean (oyster shells being the perfect substrate for new baby oysters to grow on). North Carolina recycles shells too, in a modest way: about 25,000 bushes of shell in 2008 - 2009.

Finally, this just out from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS): Researches found that if you move farm-reared oysters into slightly saltier waters just before you harvest them, the change in salinity does a fine job killing off harmful bacteria--for example the ones that cause hepatitis. Just relay those oysters from the headwaters of  creeks downstream closer to the sea.

Right now, the oyster industry kills harmful "bugs" by exposing raw oysters to flash freezing, low-dose irradiation, or low temperature pasteurization--but these approaches change the texture and taste of the oysters.  And you know how us purist raw oyster lovers feel: don't mess with perfection.  Pass the oysters, please!


  1. Looks like you're closing in on our neck of the woods. Please let us know when you'll be getting to the Chesapeake.

  2. We expect to be at Annapolis sometime in the next two weeks. . . likely won't go up the Potomac, alas, too far for our SlowBoat. Love to see you, keep in touch!