Ryan Bethea could be mistaken for a tourist, nudging his kayak into Westmouth Bay on a bright summer morning. Above this quiet stretch of Harkers Island, a lone osprey traces lazy circles in the crystalline blue sky. In the distance, the silhouettes of wild horses on Browns Island are visible through the thicket. Paddling these gentle waters, Bethea seems to be just another vacationer, taking in the wonders of the North Carolina coast.
But Bethea is going to work. A few hundred yards from shore, he slows his kayak in the shallows. This is it: his oyster farm. Oyster farming is a notoriously difficult job. It can take two years to grow an oyster for harvesting, and, even then, only about half of an oyster farmer’s crop is viable. That’s to say nothing of the harvest labor itself. Bethea likes to quote a fellow oysterman who jokes of their shared vocation: “It’s basically moving a bunch of sharp rocks with food in them.”
And yet, Bethea has decided to up the degree of difficulty. He refuses to use a motor-powered boat to reach his farm, instead relying on his kayak. He doesn’t have a davit — or any other mechanical contraption — to lift from the water the hefty cages that hold his oysters; all he has are his arms. Bethea even frowns on plastic, preferring to collect his mollusks in a pillowcase. “We try to do it 100 percent all-craft,” he says.
Technically, there is no “we,” but Bethea is reluctant to take full credit for the success of his oysters. As the founder and sole employee of Oysters Carolina, he is an evangelist — and, quite often, a poster child — for North Carolina’s suddenly hot oyster industry. For years, the state lagged behind its Southern Atlantic neighbors when it came to bivalves. Oyster farmers in Virginia, for instance, made $15.9 million in sales last year. Those in North Carolina, by contrast, made $2.4 million. But that was up from $1.1 million in 2016, which was up from a mere $260,000 in 2005. Meanwhile, the amount of water licensed for oyster farming in North Carolina continues to grow — from six acres in 2011 to more than 200 acres currently.
Bethea’s 5.25 acres in Westmouth Bay play home to, at any given moment, some 300,000 oysters. About half of them are a distinctive, extremely salty oyster that Bethea has branded the Beau Sel, which won the North Carolina Seafood Festival’s “Oyster of the Year” award in 2016, just 18 months after he went into business. Increasingly, people outside of North Carolina are beginning to notice Bethea, as well as the state’s other oyster farmers. “We’re the up-and-comers on the East Coast,” says Chuck Weirich, a marine aquaculture specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant. Or as Bethea says, “We’re kind of creating a brand as a state for an elite oyster.”
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At first glance, Bethea, 33, would seem an unlikely oysterman. He grew up in landlocked Durham, where his father was the assistant city manager, and studied political science at Appalachian State and geography at North Carolina Central. He eventually became an educator, teaching science and social studies to eighth-graders at a public school in Franklin County. Throw in his magnificent hair and relative youth, and no one’s going to mistake him for one of the grizzled fishermen on Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks.
But Bethea has always liked the water — and all that it provides to eat. As a child, his family went to Emerald Isle every summer, where he learned to clam and fish. Later, during his summers off from college — and, eventually, a six-year break from school — he bartended in beach towns like Beaufort and Charleston. But it wasn’t until his early 20s that he tried his first oyster. “I think I ate probably two dozen the first time I ever tried one,” he recalls. “It was really like zero to 100.” As a bartender at Durham’s Blu Seafood and Bar, he began to refine his palate. “Some are going to be salty and kind of lemongrassy,” he says, launching into a rhapsody about oysters’ many varieties and flavors. “Others are cucumbery or melony or taste like hay.” He could go on.
Bethea’s love of oysters might have remained strictly gustatory if, about 10 years ago, he hadn’t stumbled across an article in the North Carolina Farm Bureau’s quarterly magazine. The story celebrated the North Carolina coast — which, thanks to the shape-shifting Outer Banks, had been spared much of the industrial development that occurred alongside the more easily navigable ocean waters off of South Carolina and Virginia — as a prime spot for oyster farming. But the story also lamented that there were so few oyster farmers in North Carolina to take advantage of the excellent conditions. It struck a chord with Bethea. His great-grandparents had been farmers, and he had occasionally thought of following in their footsteps. He loved the water. “I’ve got a lot of state pride, and oysters are delicious,” he says, “and two and two came together.”
Bethea went back to school at NC Central to finish up his undergraduate degree, and then he applied to the Oyster Aquaculture Training Program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). There, he learned the intricacies of the profession: techniques like “strip-spawning” — which entails mixing oyster sperm and egg together and letting nature take its course. “It’s really cool to watch under a microscope,” he says. “The thing just grows!”
VIMS also introduced him to James Morris, an ecologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who studies aquaculture and invasive species. Bethea did an externship with Morris, and when it was over, Morris made a proposition: He held the leases on several oyster farms, including a plot in Westmouth Bay just off of Harkers Island that he was looking to sell. Bethea snapped up the lease, but he needed a day job while he got his farm up and running.
With his degree from NC Central, he was eligible to teach in North Carolina public schools thanks to a lateral entry program. In 2015, he took a teaching job in Franklin County. Then came the hard part. Five days a week, Bethea taught social studies and science to eighth-graders. On Friday night, he’d drive out to Harkers Island and spend all day Saturday and Sunday tending to the oyster farm. “It was a beast,” he says. Eventually, it became too much. At the end of the school year in 2017, he left teaching to do aquaculture full-time. He loved his students, but he loved his oysters even more.
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The water on Bethea’s lease is only shin-deep at low tide. He secures his kayak and begins wading through the oysters he’s raising. All of them started life here as oyster seeds — specially bred by scientists at the University of North Carolina Wilmington or by Jimmy Morris, the father of Bethea’s old mentor at NOAA — inside mesh bags in the farm’s nursery section. When they mature, Bethea moves them to metal cages, where they’ll grow until they’re ready for harvest. It’s a hands-on operation, examining them, moving them. “I touch them eight or nine times before they leave the farm,” he says.
Like a proud father — and a talented salesman — he names them, too. Native Sons are the giant ones that resemble chicken cutlets. They’re best roasted, he says. The tiny, delicate Beau Sel oyster is quite salty and best eaten raw. Then there are the Sea Monsters, his most popular oyster. During the winter months, the Sea Monsters have a greenish hue, which comes from a type of Navicula algae that only blooms in the cold waters off the coast of North Carolina and France; the oysters that grow there filter the water, staining their gills green. Their briny taste is a result of the salinity level of the water in Westmouth Bay — which, thanks to the nearby Atlantic, is 31 to 33 parts per thousand, just slightly less than you’d find in the ocean. “The Sea Monster is supposed to have antiviral, antibacterial qualities to it,” Bethea explains. That’s owing to the algae. But it’s the flavor of the bay that makes them such a hit, he says. “I think the reason people love our oysters so much is because they’re so salty.”
Oysters Carolina is very much a boutique operation on the sales side, as well. “We want people to eat our oysters the day we pull them out of the water,” he says. That means Bethea doesn’t do business with wholesalers, since his oysters would sit in a distribution warehouse. Knowing what he does about human nature, he won’t do a CSA either: “I feel like people would get their basket and not eat it that day.” The only restaurant Bethea sells to is Herons at the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary — 100 oysters every Friday. “They loved the fact that it was that day,” he says. “They loved the fact that they’d run out that night.”
The rest of his oysters are sold to individuals or for private events. A bit like the farm-to-table restaurant on the TV show Portlandia, which presented diners with a dossier on their food (“The chicken you’ll be enjoying tonight, his name was Colin”), Bethea shows his customers pictures of the oysters from when he harvested them, complete with a time stamp — proof that the oysters were living in the bay that same day.
On this morning, he sloshes through the shallow water in his waders, selecting 100 or so oysters for a party he’s catering that evening for the provost at Barton College in Wilson. He pulls out his phone to take a picture of the order. Some he’ll roast; some he’ll serve raw. All will be gone too soon for the guests.
His process is discerning, but it’s for a greater good. If Bethea once appreciated oysters only as a food, he now values them as an essential part of a delicate ecosystem. “Oysters are a keystone species,” he says, which means that their presence allows other living things to thrive. He plucks a crab and a juvenile redfish from an oyster cage. He points out the flourishing sea grass growing on the edge of his farm. “There need to be oysters to have this other development,” he says.
It’s a lesson he tried to impart to his students when he was teaching science. And even out here, among the marsh grass, part of the teacher remains. He’s helping develop a curriculum for a new state-mandated aquaculture initiative, which he hopes will produce the region’s next generation of oyster farmers. “When you say, ‘OK, you can go to college for four years and become an accountant,’ that doesn’t get them excited,” he says. “But being on the water and working in the elements, working with their hands — that’s the kind of stuff they feel good about.”
For Bethea, it took the taste of that first oyster to draw him in — and it’s still what excites him about oysters today: the taste of the sea, the flavor of Harkers Island. He pulls one from the pile, recalling the first time he ate one of his own oysters. “I was super nervous,” he says, popping the hinge with his knife. “After all that work, I didn’t want to be let down.” The nerves are long gone, but the wonder remains. “Its heart is still beating,” he says, admiring the Sea Monster. He tips the shell to his lips, and it’s gone. But in the quiet of the bay, his satisfied sigh lingers.