Wilmington, NC – It's early morning at a small dock in Carteret County. A front-end loader pulls massive scoops of oyster shells from a large mound, and pours its clacking, smelly cargo onto the deck of a small barge.
State biologist Steven Taylor is directing today's operation and he really is planting oyster shells to grow new oysters, by making artificial reefs to anchor the next generation of larvae, or spat.'
Taylor explains that shells are the best surface for spat in search of a home. The surface area on the shell, all these nooks and crannies in there, he says, holding up a shell from the pile. I think that spat adheres to it a lot better than anything else like rocks or marl or concrete.
Once it's loaded, the barge makes its slow way to a creek mouth along the New River near Sneads Ferry. Taylor continues his science lecture. Oyster beds form habitat for other marine creatures, he explains, so you're bringing in the small crabs, small baitfish. And then of course the bait fish will bring in the larger fish like the trout and the red drum.
To send the shells to their watery new home, Taylor dons plastic coveralls and barrages the deck with a stream of high-powered water. In minutes, hundreds of pounds of shells are under the waves.
North Carolina's Department of Marine Fisheries plants thousands of pounds of oyster shells in coastal waters each year. But each year, the program has more and more trouble getting its hands on enough shells, according to the Department's Sabrina Varnum.
We're not the only ones competing for these shells, Varnum says, and our funds are limited, so we only have so much that we can put towards the purchase.
Shells have plenty of uses on land - they're ground up for calcium in chicken feed, dumped in potholes and driveways, and spread out by landscapers in place of mulch. It's that last use Varnum blames for driving up prices.
The state is limited to paying 50 cents a pound for shells. But landscapers get many times that, up to 70 dollars per cubic yard, which is about enough to surround a couple of palm trees.
Mike Tarter, owner of a landscaping supply store in New Hanover County, defends shells as part of the area's regional feel. "People that purchase oyster shells from Mike's Mulch and Stone use them because they're very beach-y and go nice in their landscaping down by the water," he says.
Tarter says he supports the restoration effort but believes there are still enough shells to go around.
His shells, and the state's, all come from one main source - local oyster shucking houses.
It's the off-season for oysters and Lloyd Millikan, owner of Lloyd's Oyster House in Shallotte, sits alone in his dusty office. The conveyer belts and hot dip bathes in the factory behind him are silent. Only an industrial ice machine creates soft avalanches on the other side of the wall.
Behind the plant, great bleached mounds of oyster shells rear up, a remnant of this year's shucking. Millikan does reserve some of those shells for the state program, but he admits, with fewer supermarkets buying his locally canned oysters, shells are now a vital source of income.
"Years ago, when I could make money in small cans, I made enough money I didn't have to worry about it," Millikan says, "my shells were something I could buy me a new car every so often. But lately, I'm still driving a 98 Lincoln with 285,000 miles onto it. I'm putting the money back in the business to keep it going."
North Carolina's oyster harvests have increased some in recent years, but are still down from earlier decades. The oysters shucked in Millikan's factory arrive on trucks from the Gulf Coast. He questions the effectiveness of a strategy that after decades of reef creation still hasn't revived local production.
Maryland and Virginia both have laws on the books requiring shucking houses sell only to the state. North Carolina isn't contemplating anything like that right now, and Marine Fisheries head Louis Daniels says there's no organized effort afoot to pressure landscapers to stop offering shells.
But with flagging support from shucking houses, the state recently adopted a strategy from other coastal states, and went grassroots.
Marine Fishery's Varnum pops the lid off a big yellow trashcan at a recycling center in Morehead City, and rakes her hands through the accumulated clam and oyster shells.
It's a muggy summer day, not exactly high season for shellfish. But even so, it seems plenty of people are still dropping off shells.
Trashcans like this one have spread up and down the coast since the state introduced its oyster shell recycling program started four years ago. But the program still only brings in a fraction of what officials say they need.
The General Assembly made things a bit easier this past year by creating a dollar-per-bushel tax credit for recycled shells and banning state agencies from using them in landscaping.
But for Ddepartment of Marine Fisheries head Louis Daniel, one look inside a recycling bin is the best proof that the program needs all the help it can get. He tells the story of collecting recycled shells from a site on Wrightsville Beach. Mixed in were bushel tags, markers issued by states to keep track of how much oystermen harvest. Most of those tags, Daniel says, came from the Gulf Coast.
"Our hope," he concludes, "is that, not only will ... those shells be put back in local waters, but that they'll result in local oysters being served in local restaurants and that we'll start seeing tags from North Carolina, rather than from Texas and Louisiana."