Oyster season begins at sunrise on Monday, Oct. 15, and runs through March 15. Special permits are required to harvest during the off-season.
Unlicensed persons harvesting oysters for personal consumption are allowed to take one bushel per person per day, seven days a week, but may not harvest more than two bushels per vessel per day. To be harvested on both public and private grounds, oyster shells must be a minimum of 3 inches long.
Oysters taken for recreational purposes must be harvested by hand or by hand-implemented tools only. Harvested oysters may not be transferred to any other vessel during harvesting operations, including for transportation.
Harvesting limits for commercial operations are higher, but different regulations restrict harvesting to Monday through Friday. No oysters harvested on Saturday or Sunday may be sold to the public. Further regulations vary among geographic areas, and a complete list of rules and regulations can be found on the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries’ website, www.ncfisheries.net
The NCDMF currently lists the eastern oyster as a species of concern as a result of long-term decline due to overharvesting and habitat destruction. However, sampling has shown that diseases such as dermo, which affect the growth and lifespan of oysters, have declined in recent years and commercial harvest rates have shown marked improvements.
“We’ve been doing dermo testing this past month,” said Stephen Taylor Shellfish Biologist II of NCDMF. “Those oysters looked very healthy, a lot of good growth on them. Down here in the southern area we typically get very low incidence of dermo. We’re hoping for a good season.”
Oysters begin life as free floating organisms before settling to the bottom and affixing themselves to solid surfaces such as rocks or concrete pilings. Favorite places to settle are other oyster shells. Oyster shell recycling centers deposit spent shells in strategic locations to promote the growth of oyster reefs and the continued stock improvement of the species. Oyster shell recycling centers are found throughout New Hanover County, including one at the Wrightsville Beach Recycling Center.
“The oyster is a keystone species,” said Matt Collogan, environmental education manager at Airlie Gardens. “It is incredibly vital to a salt marsh ecosystem.”
Collogan said the function of the oyster in its ecosystem is threefold. Oysters provide water filtration, fish habitat and food value. A single 6-inch oyster in the right location can filter up to 50 gallons of water in one day. In a single square meter of oyster reef, scientists have discovered up to 300 different species of organisms. In addition, it’s not just people that like to eat oysters, many of the organisms that thrive in oyster reefs feed on -oyster tissue.
In addition to helping rebuild ecosystems, the depositing of recycled oyster shells to salt marsh ecosystems returns a large source of calcium back to the waters. This calcium is essential for the growth of new oysters, and in regulating the acidity of the water.