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More Than 300,000 Acres Of Coastal Waters Close To Shellfishing

NC Division of Marine Fisheries

We talk about the budget-tightening decision and how it will affect local fishermen.

You’ve heard the adage that oysters are safer to eat in months containing an “R.”  It’s February and local oysters are at their peak. Patricia Smith is the Public Information Officer for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries. 

“That’s the time where basically they are not producing, and they are not producing, they are getting fatter.”

Oyster harvesting season in North Carolina lasts six months, from October to March. Due to restrictions enforced this month, fisherman now have fewer places in which they can harvest shellfish.  On January 22nd, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced that the closure of more than 300,000 acres of North Carolina waters to shellfishing would begin in February.  The closure affects waters in the Albemarle Sound, Currituck Sound, the upper Pungo River and upper Neuse River.  Smith says the closures are due to budget tightening.

“Last year, when everyone was told to look for budget reductions, the Division of Marine Fisheries was told to as well. We found this would save about $148,000 give or take some, and that’s a reduction in staff, the office, and operation expenses that go along with it.”

Smith says the closures did not go through a public hearing process.

“This is something that had been in the works since the passage of the budget this past summer.”

The shellfish closures eliminates 80 sampling sites, which means 480 fewer water quality samples taken each year.   Under federal shellfish regulations, if areas are not surveyed they must be closed to shellfishing.

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources samples all the shellfish sites in the state because they must be done in a certified lab. Currently, there’s 912 sampling sites along the coast.  Smith says areas that have been non-productive were chosen for closure.

“We weren’t really getting oyster and clam harvest from these waters, they were just waters that still you know still sampling, still sending people to see how the pollution levels were for oyster harvest and things, when there really was no harvest there.”

According to Smith, the closure will have very little impact.  This week, I contacted several fishermen who do business near the closed waters in Belhaven, Edenton and Swan Quarter.  Most said they didn’t know about the shellfish closure and prefer working the more bountiful Pamlico Sound.  I did speak with owner and operator of Foster’s Seafood in Belhaven Floyd Foster.

“I deal in just local seafood, no imports or anything, buy from the fisherman, repack it and resell it.”

Foster says the closure has had very little effect on his business, because they harvest most of their oysters near the mouth of the Pungo River, near Rose Bay.  The most recent closure affects upper Pungo River, an area Foster says was once brimming with shellfish.

“It varies through the years, you know.  Sometimes it is and sometimes it ain’t.  One area that closed back in the 50’s that was a really producing place but then you opened up Pungo with all farm water to poison running down into it and it killed everything out there.  My daddy and all the old timers out here said it would and it did.  I remember, they opened it up in 1960.”

The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries’ shellfish sanitation program began in 1925 following outbreaks of typhoid fever in Chicago, New York, Washington and several other cities linked to tainted shellfish.  Since the recent closures were put into place February 4th, Public Information Officer Patricia Smith says she hasn’t heard much response from the public.

“You know I really haven’t heard from any fisherman about this since it happened.  There was one woman that emailed us about this but it turns out that the water she was talking about was waters that have been closed for six years, it didn’t have anything to do with this.”

300,000 acres of coastal waters seems like a large area to close to shellfishing.  But fisherman who actually know about the closures don’t seem too concerned with the move. It’s the best case scenario, with budget reductions happening and very little impact to local fisherman. 

A map of recreational water quality sampling sites that will still be tested can be found at

Regional maps delineating waters that are newly closed to shellfish harvest can be found at

More detailed maps of open and closed shellfish harvesting areas can be found at

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.