Oyster season opens late; fishermen and dealers hope for good harvest

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Oyster season began late this year, after the deluge of rain during the first week of October caused storm water runoff. But by Tuesday, most of the usual waters from the Surf City bridge in Pender County to Whiskey Creek in New Hanover County were open for the picking.

Motts Channel Seafood and Cape Fear Coast Seafood were still awaiting their first bushels earlier this week, but that didn’t stop oyster-loving patrons from inquiring.

“I haven’t bought a bushel yet,” said Tom Franz, manager at Motts Channel Seafood. But people want them when they do come in. “We’re getting several calls a day,” he said.

Cape Fear Coast Seafood in Porters Neck got its first delivery Tuesday, said general manager Brian Hepler. He expected the few bushels to go quickly.

“I’ve got a long list,” he said.

Anthony Sellers, a local fisherman who works out of the Sloop Point area, planned to wait until later in the week, when the tides should be more cooperative. It’s best, he said, if the morning low tide hits well after sunrise — allowing commercial fishermen a better chance to collect their full five-bushel limit.

Officials with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries were busy sampling waters in the hopes they could open the waters south of Whiskey Creek to shellfishing.

Motts Channel Seafood originally expected three bushels Oct. 15, which was supposed to be the official first day of the season. But runoff from the early-October rainstorm closed most beds. Patti Fowler, section chief with the shellfish sanitation section, said her office had to wait until water samples came back clean.

Most of the waters between Surf City and Whiskey Creek opened this past weekend, she said, although contamination puts some areas off limits nearly all the time.

The state of North Carolina has been working to ensure oysters are plentiful year after year. By planting thousands of reefs using marl, oyster shells and scallop shells, they hope to provide a good environment for oysters to grow.

Garry Wright, shellfish biologist in charge of the reef program, said his section plants about 40 acres of oyster reefs a year, and the project is showing great promise for improving the annual harvests.

The 2014 season was a pretty good one, Franz said. Cold weather and limited closures kept the stock coming in. Weekends often saw 15 bushels come and go.

Demand always picks up around the holidays. Around Thanksgiving last year, Motts Channel sold 48 bushels, Franz said. Hepler said Cape Fear Coast typically sells up to 300 bushels at Thanksgiving, with an average of maybe 30 to 40 bushels a week the rest of the season, although the occasional oyster roast also will boost sales.

The outlook for this season is still uncertain, as are prices, said Hepler, who admitted being anxious about cost.

“If you listen to the fishermen, it’s going to be the worst season ever — but they say that every year, he said. “We’ll just have to see.”

email tricia@luminanews.com

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