What is the common thread between King Louis XIV, a weathered fisherman called Clammerhead, an ecological crisis, a professor from UNC Chapel Hill, and aquaculture? Oysters. Back when Europeans arrived on our continent, oysters were known as the Kings of the Coast, a seemingly endless protein source that kept the water in the Chesapeake Bay sparkling and clear. Now in North Carolina, they are only at roughly 10 percent of their former abundance. Sandbar Oyster Company is working to restore the oyster population to its former glory.
We met with the two business partners who founded Sandbar Oyster Company; first with Dr. Niels Lindquist in his office at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead, and then with Clammerhead (yes, he really goes by that) on a 16 foot boat that he skillfully piloted out to the sandbar they call The Lump, their biggest oyster growing operation in the middle of the Newport River. The interview with Lindquist happened mostly in a warm office under fluorescent lights, surrounded by stacks of books. Charts, maps, and clippings from articles were hanging all around but his desk was clean, ready for work. He was mild-mannered and methodical in talking through their thought process for starting the company, speaking in a fairly quiet voice.
The interview with Clammerhead stands in contrast: we walked and talked through the sandbars, wading through the incoming tide, wind whipping through on an unsettlingly cold and grey August afternoon. He had to be loud just to be heard clearly, but his voice was never forceful - just drawling and enthusiastic, tone made deep and gravelly from years of smoking. He has lived for all he’s worth both on the water and on shore, and it shows in his person, his mannerisms, and his working knowledge of sea life in Carteret County. On the surface, Lindquist and Clammerhead may seem like an odd couple, but they have a common passion for oysters that comes out almost immediately in talking to them. When Clammerhead was looking for “pretty oysters” to photograph, his eyes shone as he said,
“It’s like they’re my children, they’re all so beautiful, I can’t believe they are mine!” Similarly, Lindquist is energized by talking about oysters, the way they work, and how they can be built up. As unlikely as it may have seemed fifteen or twenty years ago, their partnership was just in the cards.
Clammerhead has been working on the water since he was six years old. It was more or less in his blood. In his words,
“My grandaddy’s daddy’s grandaddy’s daddy was a commercial fisherman. Seventh-generation fisherman. My sons are eighth generation.” He still remembers the day his grandfather bought him a clamming license and a pea digger. “He told me, ‘Boy, if you’ve got any sense, you’ll throw both of these overboard.’ He was totally against me gettin’ into the industry, cause I reckon he knew how hard-headed and stubborn I was, and I’d never get out.” A grandfather’s sixth sense proved true: After 51 years of being a commercial fisherman more often than not, Clammerhead is still going strong. Niels got a slightly later start, scuba diving at age 12 in Florida. From there he graduated to spending a lot of time in the water, observing marine life, and keeping salt water tanks in his home. When it came time for a college degree, he chose chemistry as a way to study biology. This led him to studying chemical ecology (he stopped to explain in his kindly professorish way that chemical ecology is looking at the chemicals that plants and animals produce, and trying to figure out how they produce those chemicals, and what they use them for), which in turn brought him to studying coral reefs. Then Lindquist began looking for another field, one a little closer to home.
“One thing that got me into the oyster research was an oyster roast. I was trying to shuck oysters, and the shells just kept crumbling in my hands. I’m looking at it, and I know what the problem is.” It turns out that the same sponge that bores into coral rock on a coral reef will attack oyster reefs as well. Asking around, Lindquist found that nobody really knew what the issue was.
“We started doing research, and found out it was a big deal. It was a big deal that people have known about for hundreds of years, but had just forgotten as a big player in oyster ecology. And we have brought back that knowledge.”
That early research on the boring sponge was the beginning of a multi-year collaboration between Niels and Clammerhead. The grant funding research of the boring sponge was designed to bring together local commercial fishermen and scientists, so when another fisherman threw Clammerhead’s hat in the ring, Lindquist and his IMS colleague Doctor Joel Fodrie reached out. Although Clammerhead initially had misgivings, it was winter and things were slow, so he went in to help.
“I quickly found out that the scientists I was working with were more than just scientists,” Clammerhead noted, “They were top-notch human beings … They were the kind of scientists that were getting out in the water, and working with you.” Paper-pushing landlubbers they certainly were not. Lindquist and Clammerhead began to feed off of each other, finding that their separate years of expertise combined well, and that each had information gaps that the other could fill. What they rapidly came to realize was that there were several problems with the currently accepted ways to grow oyster reefs. These problems led them to create a unique approach to attracting oysters, and then growing the population. The key to their approach is their Oyster Catcher™ (named after the bird that has a particular appetite for oysters), a proprietary ephemeral substance.
In layman’s terms, ephemeral substrate means ‘stuff that organisms can attach to that is solid, but won’t last forever’. The way Sandbar Oyster Company makes it is by taking a loosely-woven cloth made from plant fibers and passing it through a slurry of cement. The cement-infused fabric can then be molded into almost any shape, and then it is left to harden. The substrate is typically formed into mats (a little bigger than a welcome mat), thick donut shapes (which have been christened ‘patties’ after their striking likeness to cow droppings), and slim but sturdy rods, about three feet long. The surface on everything is dark grey and rough, not smooth, which Lindquist said is key for providing protection for the oysters when they are small.
Once the material in all of its different shapes is dry, it is taken out to their center of oyster-growing operations, The Lump. The rods are tied together to make small stands about six inches off the ground, creating a three-dimensional oyster reef framework. Mats are stacked and secured to these frameworks. Patties are stacked up and secured four to five high on the sands of The Lump. Just one patty can hold up to a thousand baby oysters, known as spat.
The larvae will settle in between the donuts, over and under the mats, all over the stands, and begin to grow. This creates a volume of oysters, instead of just a surface like you would get on a traditional limestone/oyster shell reef. Once the baby oysters on the mat reach a certain size, the ones that are destined for market are easily stripped off the Oyster Catcher and placed into mesh bags, which are then set on top of the stands where they continue feeding in the tide. The patties, once coated with oysters, can be strategically placed to build up the sandbar and break strong currents; all working to restore or create oyster reefs. Since the substrate creates a volume of oysters, once the Oyster Catcher crumbles away you still have a solid oyster structure - so solid, Clammerhead could stand on them and even bounce a little. Using an evolving knowledge of oysters and their environment combined with the Oyster Catcher is helping Clammerhead and Lindquist grow oysters more efficiently.
Larvae are not the only inhabitants of the sandbar - we spotted crabs and the biggest coquina I've ever seen, and Clammerhead said the tide brings in fish and other critters. He lets the crabs hang around with a very "live and let live" attitude, assuming they contribute to the mini ecosystem that is forming.
Lindquist explained what makes good oyster habitat, and what makes growing oysters out on a sandbar in an estuarine (where fresh and salt water meet and mix) environment a good idea. If the oysters are constantly under water in the saltier parts of an estuary, it makes them easier targets for their predators. But if you have them where the tide will go out, the oysters easily tolerate being exposed, while their predators and pests do not. This makes the intertidal zone a perfect safe haven for oysters.
“Oysters are really amazing in the range of environments across which they can survive and grow, salinity [the amount of salt in water] being one of them. Their pests don’t tolerate fresh water very well.” This is a sentiment echoed by Clammerhead, who said we must have really messed something up to make such a tough, resilient creature go into the decline that it has. This decline has not been all overharvesting, though. According to Lindquist, the harvesting problem has to be set in the context of changing everything oysters originally had going for them. Dredged inlets, our intracoastal waterways, and the development of shorelines have changed the balance of fresh and salt water in our estuaries. Estuaries of today are very different than they were in the past. This is why growers will have to adapt, but in the words of Clammerhead,
“Of course we all do, it’s how we as a species learned to walk.”
To show how sturdy the structures are once the substrate is replaced by oysters, Clammerhead hopped up on this colony and bounced up and down a little. The thing was solid.
The potential benefits of adapting are great, both in terms of economic gain and helping to reset this important slice of the environment. A healthy, thriving oyster population means cleaner water, for one thing. An adult oyster can filter about fifty gallons a day, give or take. It does so easily as it breathes and eats, filtering through its floating food; eating some materials, and discarding the inedible stuff down into the sediment, so it is taken out of the water column. This makes the water more clear, so the sunlight can shine further down. More sunlight encourages the growth of habitat-forming species like seagrass. Phytoplankton (small floating plants) draws carbon dioxide out of the air via photosynthesis. This carbon, which was incorporated into the plants, is then eaten by the oysters, digested, and expelled; most of it gets deposited down into the reef, where it is buried. It’s an exciting concept: the ability to remove some of the carbon that would otherwise be in the atmosphere, simply by fostering oysters.
The oyster’s feeding process is also a driving force behind a process called denitrification. Denitrification reduces dangerous levels of nitrogen-based chemicals, levels that can encourage unwanted algal bloom. As the oysters feed and grow and reproduce - and repeat that cycle many times, with the larvae settling on the shells of their parents - they form an oyster reef. Lindquist and Clammerhead tap into this cycle with the Oyster Catcher™ to create living shorelines. These living shorelines in turn serve to dampen the effects caused by high waves and strong currents (such as shoreline erosion) and create valuable fishery habitat.
“We’re creating a lush environment from a sand flat that on its own supports some life, but not to the degree we have in our created habitat,” Lindquist said. “We’re trying to get our estuarine environment up to the condition it used to be in.”
If the ecological advantages weren’t exciting enough, Sandbar Oyster Company will soon be making waves with their signature oyster, appropriately named the Atlantic Emerald.
This image actually made the cover of Carolina Shore - Since I live inland and there's a delivery delay, I didn't know until I got an email from an elated Clammerhead.
Lindquist explained that due to the green hue the gills of these oysters take on, they have been shunned by most buyers in the past. If they were purchased, it was generally at a reduced price. What turns the oysters green is eating a harmless microscopic plant (if you want it in scientific terms, it’s a diatom called Haslea ostrearia, and beyond being harmless, it is actually thought to have antioxidant, antiviral, and antibiotic properties, making it good for the human immune system), but the American general public did not know that. However, there was a group of people that caught on to the green gill craze: the French. All the way back in the 1700s, green oysters were a favorite of Louis XIV, the Sun King. For those of you who haven’t brushed up on your French history lately, he was the king who built the decadent Palace of Versailles, and proudly proclaimed “The state is me!” If a person like that tells you that green oysters are the best oysters, you agree with him. The French perfected a method to turn them green on purpose, placing the oysters in ponds along the coast that contained the diatom roughly a month before they will go to market. They are now one of the most expensive, sought-after oysters in Europe. So, if the green coloring is not harmful, does it make a difference in the taste? Without hesitation, Lindquist said that they are better. As a way to explain the difference in taste, Clammerhead said,
“It’s like the difference between a kiss, and a kiss when you’re in love.” Lindquist said that Sandbar Oyster Company is working to develop a premium market for green gills in the U.S., North Carolina in particular.
“Just the visual presentation is something new and different, and something that chefs who are more on the cutting edge, and want to give their diners something to really ponder and think, ‘This is something really weird and different, but delicious’.” They have had interest from local chefs, and even from one of the food moguls behind ThinkFoodGroup to feature their oysters in restaurants as far away as Los Angeles. Niels sees this as an opportunity to move Atlantic Emeralds™ up the food chain into a prominent place of desirability.
Rowan Jacobsen, prolific author, food blogger, and oyster expert who drew the culinary world’s attention to the Atlantic Emerald™ and Sandbar Oyster Company, wrote that North Carolina has the potential to become the ‘Napa Valley of oysters’. According to Niels, this is an accurate and exciting assessment.
“You have so many environments … whether there’s marsh habitat all around, or it’s more open and sandy, grassy areas - those things all impart different flavor characteristics.” Even oysters grown in the same location, but at different depths in the water can have very distinct flavors. “We’re working to try to market that along with other growers, saying if you want to see what’s available with oysters in terms of flavors (just like wines), North Carolina is a good place to come and sample.” The idea is to eventually have an Oyster Road through the state for connoisseurs to travel, sampling oysters and possibly other sea life as they go. To test this idea, Sandbar Oyster Company has partnered with SeaVisions Charters of Beaufort to bring oyster enthusiasts out to The Lump to tour their operation, shuck oysters, and sample some of their Wild Pony line.
Clammerhead, piloting the 15 ft. boat back to shore. When I went to take this photo, I peaked up over the camera to make sure he was okay with me taking a photo of him with a cigarette - some people are sensitive about things like that. He kind of laughed and said, "Oh, you can print the one of me smoking. I kinda like the idea of ticking someone off." It's one of my favorite photos I've taken to date.
Whether trying to help the environment or the economy, the two men behind Sandbar Oyster Company are playing the long game, and they are playing for the benefit of the greatest amount of people possible. Clammerhead told me staunchly that whatever else happens, Sandbar will be his last job. He and Lindquist are clearly thinking about not just the next decade, but the next century; not just their own sandbar, but the statewide to global community of commercial fishermen that can be affected by their efforts. During the interview, Lindquist posed a question that seems to be the summary of their work: Can we do good, and do well by doing good? To the casual observer this question may sound like a glass-half-full, rose-colored glasses way of looking at things. If you stop to think it through, you will find hopefulness mixed with grit and reality. Sandbar Oyster Company’s thesis question has been backed up by solid research, a rich knowledge of local resources, and years of work in the trenches. If doing well by doing good is a possibility, Niels Lindquist and Clammerhead will certainly make it happen.
For more information on Sandbar Oyster Company or to book a tour of The Lump, visit www.beaufortoystours.com .
This story was a doozy to produce. Hours of research, an afternoon spent with the gentlemen of Sandbar Oyster Company trying to keep up with lingo I'd never heard before in my life, days of writing and re-writing - and it was the work that I was proudest of from that August. It helped me to realize that if I (someone who aaaalmooost flunked natural science in college and was dealing with horrible brain fog at the time) could write about oysters, I could write about anything. I'm so grateful to NC Coast's editor Amanda Dagnino for handing me this challenge, and to Niels for his thoughtful review of the scientific language. I had so much fun learning from the guys of Sandbar Oyster Company!