The life of a Cape Fear oysterman
Story & Photographs by John Wolfe
On an Elysian autumn day in late September, I find myself perched on the bow seat of a jon boat, rocketing down the waterway behind Masonboro Island. The boat is green and solid, covered with a shining spiderweb of scuffs and scratches; its floor is buried under small white buoys and tough black mesh bags and long lengths of PVC pipe. A shimmering rainbow refracts in the cascading bow spray above the iridescent water. The sky above is Carolina blue, scattered with pulled-cotton clouds that march northwest on the breeze that ripples the channel’s face.
The man at the outboard’s tiller is tall, lanky Tom Cannon, oyster farmer. He peers out at the water from behind a pair of Ray-Bans, hiding from the sun beneath a long-sleeved shirt and a tattered tan sombrero that doesn’t quite tame his straw-blond hair. We are going to visit Soundside Oyster Farm, his four acres (soon to be six, he hopes) of sparkling, tide-hidden sand flats, leased from the state through the Division of Marine Fisheries. There, he is working to raise 400,000 Eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica) from pinky-fingernail-size spat to palm-filling adults, ready for market.
In North Carolina, oyster aquaculture is growing rapidly, with 266 leases on 1,835 acres in 2015, producing 27,604 bushels valued at $478,856. Cannon’s own specialty, water column culture, had only two leases and six acres in 2011; in 2015 there were 35 leases spanning 110 acres. Last year there were almost 30 outstanding applications, which, once processed, will essentially double the industry.
We arrive at the farm, hidden from the Intracoastal Waterway behind a thin grove of spartina marsh. Cannon’s farm consists of four long rope rows, 10 feet apart, strung between chest-high lengths of PVC pipe. From these hang 260 backpack-size floating mesh bags containing his oysters. Cannon steers between the rows and cuts the engine. The only noise is the ripple of water against the hull and the steady thrum of breeze in our ears.
Already the growth in his industry is visible. Cannon points out, on both sides of his own acreage, the claims of people whom he considers his friends. It’s a community, he tells me. Everyone shares the same resources. Soundside is a direct result of time Cannon spent working with Tim Holbrook, a pioneering farmer in the waters behind Masonboro, learning the hands-on methods essential to an oyster farm’s success. Cannon hopes to create 10 jobs on his farm in the future, “employing as many good, local folk as possible,” but for now he says he’s “humbled to have the support of friends and family” who have helped out in his endeavor.
We hop out, barefooted, into the clear, warm, waist-deep water. This time of year he comes out three days a week, but soon, as the water cools and the harvest begins, it will become five, with the other two days spent delivering his product. It’s his dream; every day he is either out here on the flats or traveling around. I admire how he lives a life of his own choosing. His is a free, wild and beautiful way. “It’s a profession where, if you put your heart and back into it, you’ll see benefits,” he says, unclipping one of his bags and hoisting it into the bow of the boat.
It’s the perfect career for Cannon. Growing up on the water in New Bern, he’s always loved being outside. And he displayed a gastronomical penchant for marine bivalves at an early age (his mother tells stories of how, at 2, he would amaze waitresses by making an entire platter of clams disappear). His family has been harvesting oysters on the Carolina coast for 300 years, and Cannon, incredibly, buys his oyster seedlings at a hatchery down the road from the coastal cemetery where his maternal great-great-great-grandfather, commercial fisherman Sylvanus Barker II, is buried — a fact that seems more like destiny than coincidence. “Doing what I’m doing connects me to a portion of my past,” he says.
Another part of the reason he became an oyster farmer began during his years at Appalachian State. In the mountains, dreaming of the coast, he wrote a research paper on oyster habitat restoration and how it relates to coastal development — how oysters can play a role in, as Cannon puts it, “rehabilitating waterways that need more love.” Nitrogen runoff, found in the discharged waste from concentrated animal feeding operations (hog and poultry factory farms) in eastern Carolina, led to eutrophication of the rivers he grew up on — the Trent and the Neuse — and caused two massive fish kills during his childhood, which remain embedded in his memory. Although he can’t change the past, he can affect the future. As more of Wilmington gets paved with impervious surfaces that drain directly into our tidal creeks and waterways, oysters, while not the whole solution, are “an integral part” of addressing the looming problem of overdevelopment of our coast.
Oysters are filter feeders, meaning they siphon water through their bodies, removing things like nitrogen and other toxins and transforming them into edible protein — “the best food you can put in you,” according to Cannon. One little oyster can filter a staggering 50 gallons of water in one day. And they create habitat for the 94 percent of marine animals that begin life in these saltmarsh estuaries, hiding amongst the spartina before they venture out into the wide, open ocean. The ecosystem on Cannon’s farm appears to be thriving: All around our legs are schools of tiny fish and shrimp, darting and iridescent. A pod of dolphins breach nearby, their gasping exhalations audible from afar. Overhead, an osprey flaps its wings with intention. Its yellow-rimmed eyes spot a meal below and, as Cannon and I watch (and I cheer), the bird tucks its wings and arrows down. A splashing impact — after a few heavy sodden-winged flaps, the bird takes off again, in its talons clutching the prize of a startled mullet, turned aerodynamically in line with the flight vector back to the nest.
Time for us to dine, as well. Cannon’s type of farming focuses on producing a “high-quality, premium” oyster, for sale to elite restaurants within and beyond state borders. He hopes his oysters will end up on plates in places such as Catch, Pinpoint, Pembroke’s and Rx, and plans to ship a portion of his crop to Thailand. But today, wearing thick blue rubber gloves, he rummages around in the open bag and selects two plump oysters. Expertly shucking them, he pauses to admire the compact, meaty animal inside — globular and tan, floating in brine inside its self-made calcium cavern. The one he hands to me has a tiny red crab lurking inside, the size of a pea (hence its name: the pea crab). “The sign of a healthy ecosystem,” he says. We raise our shells in a toast to the sublime world around us, and down the hatch they go. A connoisseur of craft oysters might describe nutty and cheesy notes, with the iron tang of a rare steak at the end, but I’m not quite at that point yet. I can tell you this: I now know firsthand that old joy of how it tastes to be on top of the food chain (although the pinfish nibbling at my leg hair might disagree).
What amazes me about this is how we are occupying the intersection of the ancient and the neoteric, here behind an island which, to me, represents the same. Cannon’s oysters are of a family of animals that have been on this planet longer than sharks, but the methods of grow-out he is using are high-tech, developed alongside scientists at the nearby UNCW Center for Marine Science. Some oyster farmers in North Carolina are using a satellite-driven “siting tool,” which analyzes waterways for water depth, turbidity and salinity to find perfect conditions to grow the best oysters. An element of the old remains for Cannon, who, even though we marked out his new acres with the GPS on his smartphone, still looks to the wildlife for guidance. They have been watching the marsh with unblinking eyes even before his own family’s impressive lineage. “The heron is my spirit bird,” he says with a free laugh. “They’ll teach you to look at things in the right way. And the blue crabs will teach you to stand up to anything.”
A millennial like me (albeit a few years older; we bookend our generation), Cannon thinks it’s up to us to moderate how we use all this new technology. The tools of our species are better than ever before, but we must be careful not to let them eclipse our view of the real world: the world of the oyster, the heron, the water. I have a hunch that part of why both of us are out here is an attempt to reclaim that ancient, personal understanding of the planet — Tom Cannon through farming, John Wolfe through pen and pages — and connect with the older part of ourselves.
John Wolfe studied creative nonfiction at UNCW.