Lab to farm to table: Science, research are keys to future of NC oysters

From lab to farm to table. After years of over harvest and disease decimating North Carolina’s oyster population, research and aquaculture are seen as keys to rebuilding an industry with important economic and environmental possibilities.

Chances are, if you’ve had oysters on the half-shell, you’ve eaten what is called a triploid.

Triploids are grown in hatcheries and then tended to in coastal waters. They are widely used in today’s growing oyster bar scene because they grow bigger, faster, and more shapely.

The triploids have three sets of chromosomes, instead of two – rendering them sterile, and therefore not preoccupied by reproduction. This allows the shellfish to put all of their energy into growing.

The triploid is the invention of a Virginia researcher, who patented the breed years ago by first developing a four chromosome oyster in the lab. Scientists say they are the “seedless fruit” of the seafood world.

Dr. Ami Wilbur directs the Shellfish Research Hatchery at UNC-Wilmington. Her team breeds oysters in temperature-controlled tanks fed from bubbling cauldrons of nutritious algae. They’re working to find the fastest growing, most disease resistant oysters to thrive in North Carolina waters.

Wilbur does not consider the triploids to be genetically modified, since they’re created by cross breeding.
Already supplying some farms, her end goal is to hand off a line of North Carolina super oysters to a commercial hatchery. Right now, the majority of the triploids growing in North Carolina’s waters actually come from Virginia or the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s green, it’s sustainable, it feeds us while maybe taking some fishing pressure off our wild stock,” Wilbur said.

Building off the triploid, Virginia’s oyster industry took off in recent years, producing 10 times what the North Carolina industry produces.

“The triploid is important, both in terms of the speed and the economics of the industry, as well as being able to have an oyster in North Carolina in August from a local water body,” Ted Wilgis of the North Carolina Coastal Federation said.

While farming the triploid is common practice, states along the Gulf of Mexico only allow the breeding of native oysters to boost its population.

There’s a blueprint in place to grow and nurture North Carolina’s native shellfish industry with investments in habitat restoration, clean water protection, and aquaculture.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go,” Wilgis said.

Ryan Bethea, a former middle school teacher, started oyster farming in Westmouth Bay, off Harker’s Island.

“It was a way to leave a positive footprint on our environment. It was a way to promote our state,” he said of his company Oysters Carolina.

His farm consists of bottom cages with a broad assortment of about 300,000 small, large, wild and coddled oysters that take on the flavor of the bay.

“Our oysters are going to be really crisp, very salty. They’ve got a nice sea grass flavor to them and a little bit of citrus you can definitely taste,” Bethea said.

Could the North Carolina coast turn into the Napa Valley of oysters? Bethea says definitely.

The difference between a triploid and a wild oyster is stark. The triplod grown in the Pamlico Sound dwarfs the wild one.
Bethea said the plan now is to grow all versions to naturally filter the water and bolster the marine habitat. He wants to change state menu options by putting more locally raised oysters on North Carolinian’s plates.

Chef Steven Greene, of Heron’s in Cary, is on board.

“It’s amazing to be able to bring some of the best ingredients in the world that are right here in North Carolina,” Greene said.

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