‘The North Carolina coast is the Napa Valley of oysters’: Oyster expert talks about importance of the shellfish in our environment

Like a fine Napa Valley wine, oysters take time to grow, nurture, and harvest.
Updated: Oct. 13, 2022 at 5:00 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) Like a fine Napa Valley wine, oysters take time to grow, nurture, and harvest.

“I have heard that the North Carolina coast is the Napa Valley of oysters. We have some of the most delicious juicy oysters around,” said Bonnie Mitchell, Coastal Education Coordinator with the North Carolina Coastal Federation.

It’s far from a simple process and is made even more difficult due to North Carolina’s natural and manmade water issues.

“So much of North Carolina is closed to shellfishing because of the bacteria in the water. You’re not able to eat those oysters from that water. So, the more that we can protect and clean our water, the more oysters and healthy, clean oysters that we can eat,” said Mitchell.

Fortunately, Mitchell says it’s not only on us to ensure the water is clean for oyster farms to thrive, the little-shelled creatures play their own critical role.

“Oysters help to keep our waters clean and they do that by filtering our water. One oyster is capable of filtering up to 50 gallons of water a day. They also make for really, really important fish habitats. So many animals are using our oyster reefs and our estuaries as a place to live, feed and reproduce,” Mitchell said.

You may not think of it while you’re eating a dozen oysters or enjoying an oyster roast, but each plate of oysters helps these underwater communities thrive.

With each oyster you eat, the shells are returned to the water, ensuring future generations.

“Baby oysters or baby spat need something hard to settle on and grow. If they fall into the sediment, they can’t survive. And so we work really hard to put oyster shells back in the water, where they can make a habitat for those new oysters and new oyster growth.”

New oyster growth means success for other Carolina seafood too.

“Oysters are really a keystone species meaning that they are absolutely fundamental to all the life that we find on our coasts that we love so much,” Mitchell said.

And our love for oysters, in turn, helps our coast become a Napa Valley-like destination for the delicacy, one shell at a time.