North Carolina Oyster Trail: Bringing Back an Old Pearl

— Written By Courtney Hotchkiss and last updated by
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With inspiration from an initiative in Virginia, a research team has assembled to investigate the potential of the North Carolina Oyster Trail (NCOT). Feasibility and demand will be studied to discover if oyster farmers, artisans, and tour companies can successfully attract visitors centered around this one incredible creature.

baked oyster

A man enjoying a baked oyster, one of the many ways oysters can be prepared and enjoyed

Not just a bivalve that cleans our water, oysters are delicious and nutritious, aesthetically interesting, and habitat providers for other animals. They have been harvested along the coast for consumption for over 100 years, but numbers have dwindled 50% over the past century and are currently listed as “a species of concern.”

Last year, the power team of Dr. Jane Harrison (NC Sea Grant Coastal Economist), Dr. Whitney Knollenberg (assistant professor at NC State University), Carla Barbieri (professor at NC State University), Emily Yeager (assistant professor at ECU) and Julie Leibach (science writer with Sea Grant) submitted a proposal to the North Carolina Sea Grant Program in partnership with NOAA’s Aquaculture Program and was awarded a two-year grant of over $119,000. With these funds, the team will conduct a study on shellfish mariculture tourism supply and demand. The results will inform the development of the NCOT, and identify potential visitors and assets.

A key initiator for the NCOT is Jane Harrison, coastal economics specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant. She works with shellfish growers to sustainably grow the industry. She explains her reason for focus on the NCOT, “Oyster farmers want to diversify their operations and find new income streams. They are investigating how to add a tourism component to their business.”

people with oysters

Spurgeon Stowe of Slash Creek Oysters in Hatteras, NC shares his oysters with Jane Harrison, Mitch Carstens, Whitney Knollenberg, and Annie Baggett (Agritourism Specialist for N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

The research team will explore oyster tourism supply and demand, to see what people are excited about, and to gather more information about pricing. Information will be collected through surveys of potential visitors and workshops with oyster farmers, tourism leaders, and other stakeholders interested in the NCOT. The team has started initial work in the Outer Banks to build upon existing tourism assets, but ultimately the NCOT will include all coastal counties and potentially inland restaurants and other entities that feature NC oysters.

“We’re aiming to create a regionally attractive tourism product to get the word out on oysters,” explains Dr. Knollenberg. “We want visitors to have an experience around oysters, like trips to farms on water and land, tastings at local restaurants, and visits to galleries with different artists’ interpretations of oysters as a medium.”

Data collection will begin with asset mapping workshops, followed by a survey of coastal visitors. Results of the asset mapping and survey will allow researchers to test and develop NCOT experiences. “We’re excited to look at supply and demand,” says Dr. Knollenberg, “and to learn what people want, what resources exist, and what are the gaps that we can fill as a research team.” A workshop at Cape Hatteras was complete, with future workshops planned for Wilmington, Morehead City, and Surf City area. The Wilmington workshop, held in conjunction with Oyster South, is February 22, 2020, at noon. Other workshop dates and times are to be determined.

In the fall, data will be collected at food festivals to learn how to attract “foodies” and to learn what is attracting visitors. This will be followed by an evaluation to determine satisfaction, impact, perception, and knowledge of how oysters are grown and consumed.

Research will yield the opportunity for creative solutions; results will help determine which tourism experiences have the most success potential, as well as provide guidance for tasting menus and printed materials for people to learn more about oyster tourism activities.

oyster cage

Jane Harrison holding an oyster cage retrieved from waters at Slash Creek Farm

Results will also help with the development of an important online resource for providers and users of the NCOT. An annual membership to the NCOT will provide oyster growers, restaurateurs, and tour operators a platform to market their products and services to visitors. This can be helpful for businesses that are new or those that don’t have the expertise or staff to market online, as well as provide the possibility to create partnerships. Membership will also require a short quiz about growing oysters.

If you’d like to attend a workshop this spring, provide feedback, or ask questions, contact Dr. Whitney Knollenberg at

View the full strategic plan for North Carolina shellfish mariculture: NORTH CAROLINA STRATEGIC PLAN FOR SHELLFISH MARICULTURE: A VISION TO 2030

North Carolina Sea Grants offer several funding types with deadlines approaching in late January through February, with minigrants on a rolling basis.