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There will always be an oyster

Bob Garner

Bob Garner

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Sunday, October 7, 2018

It’s no surprise. The rest of the 2018 oyster season, extending on into 2019, will likely be a disaster for North Carolina natural harvesters and cultivators.

In addition to the loss of human life, loss of homes, and loss of any sense of normal existence wrought by Hurricane Florence, chalk up loss of livelihood. Ring up millions of dollars in ruined equipment and seed stock for oyster farmers.

Those with a license to harvest wild oysters won’t suffer the same investment losses, but the destruction of their means of earning a living is no less complete. Bacterial contamination and excessive amounts of fresh rainwater dumped by Florence, which decreased the necessary salinity of tidal waterways, have closed too many oyster beds.

The oysters might have survived the pollution over time, since they naturally filter out a lot of contamination, but probably not this relative scarcity of salt water as well.

Cultivated oysters are normally grown to full size in floating wire mesh boxes. Those oyster farmers who tried to temporarily anchor their seed oysters (‘spats’) to the bottom to keep these boxes from being blown or pitched onto dry land or marsh grass ended up having their crop buried under four feet of mud.

Ruination of the oysters comes from either lack of oxygen beneath sediment or exposure to the open air. Protective efforts or lack of them seem to have had virtually identical results.

Definitive assessment of total oyster mortality won’t even be possible for several more weeks, but the experts seem universally pessimistic.

None of this means that oysters harvested elsewhere in America’s eastern, southern and western coastal waters will not be available in North Carolina. It just means that our state’s home-grown share of the oysters consumed here will shrink from an already very modest 25 percent to probably less than five percent for the foreseeable future.

North Carolina has tried mightily to both restore wild oyster reefs and expand oyster cultivation in recent years. The state has made progress, for example, in beginning to catch up to neighboring Virginia, where both the wild and cultivated oyster industries far outpace ours. But thanks to Florence, the gap will widen once again.

All this is especially deflating for the near future because so many experts say that with good management, North Carolina could well become the “Napa Valley of Oysters.” Under anything close to normal weather patterns, the diverse waters of our relatively shallow sounds and tidal tributaries should produce oysters with rich variation in flavors and finishes.

As far as we know, that potential should only be delayed, not destroyed. But who knows what future slow moving and rain drenching storms may be spawned by climate change? The effects of any future Atlantic hurricanes like Florence will likely be the same here.

Oh well. The Sunny Side Oyster Bar in Williamston is open for business and serving New Jersey oysters. The Boiler Room Oyster Bar in Kinston has Gulf oysters and, surprisingly, some Core Sound oysters as well. Those of us who want to buy oysters by the bushel for roasting over the holidays will undoubtedly be able to find some from other states, although they’ll be pricey.

We might as well accept that a bleak spirit or giving up oyster consumption out of empathy does no one any good in itself and only harms oyster sellers. The world may not be our oyster right now, but let’s enjoy whatever oysters we can find, from whatever source, in the months ahead. Through that feast, let’s nourish the expectation that our own state’s oyster will yet emerge and shine.

Bob Garner is a UNC-TV restaurant reviewer, freelance food writer, author of four cookbooks, barbecue pit master and public speaker. Contact him at bgarner2662@gmail.com. Visit this column on reflector.com for video from Bob about Mike’s Farm the Back Swamp community near Beulaville.

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