Conor MacNair, CEO of N. SEA. Oyster Co., checks on bags containing oysters at the company’s farm in Topsail Sound near Hampstead. (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
On a chilly morning in late November, Conor MacNair, his younger brother James and his fiancé Alyssa Pfannenstein board their custom rigged Carolina skiff at the Sloop Point boat ramp and coast out to tend their oysters.
They dress in waders and windbreakers, and pull on waterproof gloves that stretch above their elbows. It’s warmer than it has been for the past few days, and as the sunrise begins to fade, everyone is pleased with the weather.
A team of three, they make this journey daily, enduring the elements and working with the tides, on a mission to raise oysters that embody the taste of North Carolina, while maintaining a positive impact on the environment.
Conor MacNair explains that an oyster growing on a wild reef in the marsh has a 1-in-10,000 chance of making it to market size in its natural environment. He points out that wild harvesting today yields only about 10 percent of what would have been found in this area 200 years ago.
Conor MacNair grew up exploring the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, and his family owns Hog Island Oyster Co., a Pacific oyster farm located north of San Francisco. As a child in elementary school he was fascinated by the ecosystem of the Chesapeake and dreamed of owning a farm like his relatives on the West Coast. That dream became a reality about a year-and-a-half ago with the founding of N. SEA. Oyster Co.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina Wilmington with a degree in oceanography and extensive research on possible farming methods, Conor MacNair leased approximately 7 acres in Topsail Sound, south of the Surf City Bridge.
He worked with SEAPA, an Australian company that specializes in shellfish aquaculture systems, to develop an adjustable long-line system for the farm.
The system allows Conor MacNair and his team to move their oysters through a series of hanging baskets as they grow. They visually inspect the baskets daily and adjust their height in accordance with the tides.
The ability to raise and lower the baskets also allows for better management of shell growth. Conor MacNair said drying the oysters out from time to time can help create a more meaty texture and allows the shell to form a deep cup. Tossing them about in the baskets and roughing them up a bit in a custom built tumbler helps to keep them clean and builds texture.
“I want to sell oysters to everybody and for those that don’t like them, the first thing they say is ‘it’s a texture thing,’’’ Conor MacNair said. “We like to work their anatomy a bit because it yields an oyster that gives you something to bite into.”
Like most farmers, Conor MacNair is constantly refining his process, noting what works best, and how he, James and Alyssa can manipulate the oysters to cultivate the best possible product. Much like tending grapes in a vineyard, Conor MacNair says that there are small touches that can be incorporated into the growing process that will have a big impact of flavor and texture.
With the help of a USDA loan, N. SEA. Oyster Co. was able to plant 1 million oyster seed this year.
But on Sept.13, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) closed off the states coastal waters to shellfish harvesting due to the pending impact from Hurricane Florence.
It’s policy for the NCDEQ to continually monitor the water quality, and the agency does so regularly after just 1-3 inches of rain. Excessive rainfall, such as that produced by Florence, can cause stormwater runoff, flooding, sanitary sewer malfunctions and lift station failures that increase contaminants in the water, according to the NCDEQ.
“What we worry about in North Carolina after a rainfall is the presence of fecal coliform in the water,” Conor MacNair said. “But it is very easy to test for it in the water and the oysters. As soon as it is out of the water, the oyster has filtered it out. And once waters have been found clean enough for harvest, the NCDEQ waits an additional two days to allow farmers and harvesters to collect shellfish from approved areas. This is an additional measure of security to make sure the shellfish have really purged themselves clean.”
Concerns about water contamination soared in the weeks following the storm, despite the fact that the NCDEQ reopened coastal waters for harvesting following a rigorous water quality testing protocol.
Conor MacNair estimates that N. SEA. Oyster Co. lost about 100,000-200,000 oysters in the early stages of growth as a result of the storm. Perhaps more harmful to the business, however, were the event cancellations that followed, including Airlie Gardens’ decision not to serve N. SEA. Oyster Co. oysters at its annual oyster roast fundraiser.
“As a small farm, we plan months in advance for large events such as that,” Alyssa Pfannenstein said. “It had a big impact on us both emotionally and financially.”
“This industry is very heavily regulated and days of consecutive testing has to be done to ensure there’s no contamination prior to reopening waters for harvesting,” Conor MacNair said. “But there’s a lot of misinformation out there, which is why education is such a big part of what we do.”
N. SEA. Oyster Co. is a weekly fixture at the Tidal Creek Farmers Market, where they use the opportunity to connect with locals.
Oysters are a hard thing to sell because people either love them or hate them “and are very passionate either way,” Conor MacNair said. “Our business model is to get more locals eating oysters and to sell to them directly. We love the farmers market because it’s a way to directly educate people on how our oysters are grown, how they help the environment and how the industry is regulated.”
As filter feeders, oysters naturally improve water quality as they feed, filtering up to 50 gallons of water per day and ensuring that the algae population is kept at bay. This is just one of the reasons why Conor MacNair sees such potential for the growth of oyster farming throughout the state.
“It’s a type of farming that can really give back to North Carolina,” he said, “to the environment and to the economy.”
As Conor MacNair sorts through a basket of oysters, inspecting their color and shape, he shares his hopes for the future of oyster farming in the region.
“It’s been said that North Carolina has the potential to become the Napa Valley of oysters, and I believe that’s true,” he said. “I can definitely see people traveling here to just to eat oysters and visit farms to see how they’re grown.
Our barrier islands provide an amazing place for cultivating delicious, salty oysters and an oyster that is grown 5 miles north of here will taste completely different from ours, as will a Masonboro oyster or one from Stump Sound. The subtle differences in the methods, the water, it all has an impact.”