Meet an N.C. teacher turned oyster farmer

Ryan Bethea gave up teaching to become one of North Carolina's oyster farmers, using science to raise award-winning oysters on five acres of estuary he leases from the state.

Checking on the oyster crop

HARKER'S ISLAND, N.C. —It’s late afternoon, and Ryan Bethea is standing at the back of a small boat, getting ready to check on his farm.

“Just throw me the line,” he yells to his friend Kat standing onshore.

After unhooking the line from a small stake that was driven into the ground, she tosses it to Bethea. He unties the stern line from a piling near the boat ramp and then pushes the boat away from shore. He then lowers a small outboard into the water from the back of the boat, and starts the engine. And with that, he’s on his way to check on his crop.

“On the way out to the farm we just try to enjoy the view and the scenery,” Bethea says, keeping his hand on the engine handle to steer the tiny craft. “Oysters surround us. People have been growing oysters here for hundreds of years so you have to pay homage to that on the way out.”

Bethea is a farmer, but not in the traditional sense. He leases five acres of estuary from the state for his operation. That’s right, the farm is underwater. The farm is located in West Mouth Bay, just off Harker’s Island.

Changing how people eat seafood

Bethea is a North Carolina oyster farmer. “I have two goals for farm,” he explains as he pulls a set of waders over his clothes and climbs out of the boat. It’s low ide, so the water isn’t very deep. "The short-term goal for the farm is to grow the best oyster we can grow,” explains Bethea. “But long term, we want to change how people eat seafood. With the population growing, wild stocks can’t handle the pressure of the growing population, because there are so people eating as much seafood as they do. “

Bethea is the owner and operator of Oysters Carolina. It’s difficult to determine the exact boundaries of the farm. It’s not as if you can just put up a fence in the middle of an estuary. But he points to a row of pilings stretching from the island’s shore out into the water.

“So from the end of those pilings, out to here and over to another set of pilings farmer down, that’s our lease,” he says smiling. “It doesn’t really matter if it is exactly marked off, because the water is so clean and salty and it grows a really nice oyster that people seem to love.”

With the perfect oyster growing water all around, Bethea wants to show that farmed oysters, which sit on the bottom right next to wild oysters, are essentially the same. Although he admits the farm grown variety may be taken care of just a bit better. But if he succeeds, it will take some of the pressure off of wild oysters in trying to meet market demand.

How oyster farming works

It takes about two years for an oyster to mature. Oyster’s Carolina buys baby oysters from a farm in Virginia. Bethea and his friend Kat have come out to the farm to “plant” his newest purchase. They separate the 80,000 baby oysters into smaller steel mesh bags. The bags are placed into steel mesh cages to keep out predators. Those cages are then placed on the bottom of the bay.

After about 10 months, the oysters will have grown large enough for them to be moved into bigger cages. They will be moved one more time to an even larger cage before being harvested. Oysters on the farm are checked constantly to ensure they are healthy. There is no set time for when oysters are moved to larger cages, although on average it’s about every ten months.

“What makes our operation unique is that we are always looking at them and we are always touching them,” says Bethea. “Not only does that help ensure healthy oysters but it also allows us to move the oyster to a larger cage as soon as it is ready. Every oyster that comes out of our farm we’ve touched 2-3 times by hand.”

There are roughly 70 cages on the farm holding about 350-thousand oysters that are in various stages of growth. “Mother nature takes care of oysters pretty much so it’s really the perfect type of aquaculture or mariculture,” says Chuck Weirich, Ph.D, an aquaculture specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant. He’s been advising Bethea about the best methods to set up and run the oyster farm.

“You put the young oysters in containers and the feed is already in the water because oysters feed on phytoplankton and in doing so they cleanse the water."

Oyster farming boosts seafood economy, marine habitat and clean water

Weirich and NC Sea Grant are promoting oyster farming because it is a win-win for the state. While oysters are important for the economy, the creatures also contribute to better water quality by filtering the water. Oyster reefs also provide habitat for small fish and protect they coastline from storms.

“Oysters contribute to our cultures, to our economy, to our environment and to our dinner table,” adds Weirich. But while Mother Nature may do a lot of the work, oyster farming is like any type of farming; it takes time and a lot of work to make it happen. Bethea is constantly checking the oysters, testing them and keeping records to see what works and what doesn’t.

“You don’t want to say you love them because that’s corny, but you do enjoy being out here, working with them, eating them and it’s hard work,” says Bethea. “And it does give you a feeling of satisfaction. So you hope that the person you’ve giving these to enjoys them as much as you did growing them.”