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Hurricane Florence crippled the seafood industry. Farmers must decide whether to rebuild.

North Carolina oyster farmers work to recover from Hurricane Florence months after the storm

The Morris Family Shellfish Farm in Sea Level, NC suffered extensive damaged to their hatchery and mature oysters during Hurricane Florence.
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The Morris Family Shellfish Farm in Sea Level, NC suffered extensive damaged to their hatchery and mature oysters during Hurricane Florence.

After Hurricane Florence, bags of dead oysters hung in the trees near Jimmy Morris’ oyster farm and hatchery.

Florence ransacked his Morris Family Shellfish Farms in Sealevel, north of Beaufort and Morehead City. Pummeling winds, historic flooding and power outages killed a year’s worth of shellfish seed, the early stage for 10 million oysters and 5 million clams, plus the better part of 1,000 cages of market oysters.

“There were oysters everywhere,” Morris said after the storm.

Florence hit North Carolina in September as a Category 1 hurricane, then stopped and stalled for days on the coast as it dumped trillions of gallons of rain. The rush of freshwater chased off fish, killed millions of oysters and crippled an industry still taking stock of its losses.

“It was a major blow to the industry,” said Chuck Weirich, a marine aquaculture specialist with North Carolina SeaGrant in a phone interview in October. “This has affected the industry statewide. ... Some farms are really decimated, others are partially hit.”

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Zach Morris repairs oyster cages that were damaged by Hurricane Florence at Morris Family Shellfish Farms on November 9, 2018 in Sea Level, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

NC Gov. Roy Cooper’s office estimates the storm caused upwards of $17 billion in damage throughout the state, up from an initial estimate of $13 billion, according to previous News & Observer reports. Nearly half of that might not be covered by government assistance or insurance, the state reports.

In the weeks after the storm, Weirich estimated shellfish losses around $5 million — including oysters, clams and infrastructure — a figure he expects will end up surpassing the $5.5 million the oyster industry brought in last year, according to state’s annual fisheries bulletin. It’s a slim but increasingly prominent part of a billion-dollar coastal economy.

The state has offered up $1.2 million in relief for commercial fishing and shellfish, according to the report from the governor’s office.

“That’s a drop in the bucket,” Wierich said recently.

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Joe Harned works to harvest mature oysters from the Morris Family Shellfish Farms on November 9, 2018 in Sea Level, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Cooper’s office also has petitioned the U.S. Department of Commerce to declare a fisheries disaster in North Carolina, potentially freeing up more relief funds. Last year, a similar declaration led to $13 million for Texas watermen affected by Hurricane Harvey.

But for some fisheries, Hurricane Florence means owners must decide whether rebuilding is feasible, or even worth it. Oysters are their livelihood, but the damage may be too much to start over, though the state’s oysters continue to be sought-after delicacies.

“This is our worst storm,” said Teresa Bayer, who with her husband, Perry Bayer, has been digging up wild oysters for more than a decade under the name My Lord Honey Seafood. Florence wiped out 85 percent of their Beaufort-based oyster crop, she said.

“When we sit down and start thinking about the numbers, you start to question a little bit,” she said.

Safe to eat?

There’s a national hunger for oysters these days, raw on the half shell, fried and tucked between bread. North Carolina has a historic affection for its bivalves, but the national oyster bar trend has taken hold of the state, both in restaurants and in the minds of shellfish growers.

Ahead of the storm, North Carolina officials closed every oyster farm along the coast, a routine move before hurricanes or heavy rains. Even a few inches of rain can contaminate an oyster harvesting area with runoff, making oysters unsafe to eat.

Many farmers worried about the volume of water that flowed out of the eastern part of the state and collided with the sounds and inlets where they stake their livelihood. Rivers flooded, lagoons full of hog waste overflowed, and some municipal waste facilities became overwhelmed with water, spilling it all into the waterways.

In the days after Hurricane Florence, NASA released satellite images of North Carolina’s coast, with the Neuse, Tar and Cape Fear Rivers swollen and darkened by floodwaters. It looked like an oil spill, as the black rivers met the ocean, colored mostly by mud and silt, and containing dangerous toxins moving through the system.

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Jimmy Morris inspected a damaged oyster cage that was displace by Hurricane Florence on November 9, 2018 in Sea Level, N.C. Hundreds of oyster cages used to grow oysters to maturity were displaced during Hurricane Florence. Jimmy Morris of Morris Family Shellfish Farms retrieved some of them more than 150 yards into the woods surrounding his plots near Sea Level, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

But even more concerning was the freshwater that would hit their product. The shock of the freshwater kills shellfish, growers and state officials said. After the storm, readings from the Pamlico Sound showed runoff sent salinity (salt) levels below the historic floods of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. In some areas, it dropped by as much as two-thirds, essentially drowning the oysters in freshwater.

At stations along the Neuse River outside of New Bern, readings showed freshwater sitting atop miles of the mouth of the sound. Other oysters were buried in the mud or sand, while those untethered were tossed by the storm.

Questions were raised about whether seafood from North Carolina was safe for consumption — oysters, shrimp, clams, fish. Photos of fish scattered along the highways didn’t help quell those concerns.

Any flooded facilities triggered an automatic 21-day closure from the moment the leaks were fixed, said Steve Murphy, director of the NC Department of Marine Fisheries. That meant all oyster harvesting stopped for at least a couple of weeks, and some areas stayed closed two months after the storm.

The ones that stayed closed the longest were in the path of flooded septic systems and wastewater treatment sites.

Once areas reopen, the state’s shellfish are safe to harvest and eat normally, said Shannon Jenkins, section chief for the NC Department of Environmental Quality shellfish sanitation. He said the agency waited for weeks to test some areas, assuming levels of contamination would be too high to pass.

Meanwhile, North Carolina oysters disappeared from menus, replaced by ones from Maine or Virginia or other spots known for their bivalves. Triangle seafood restaurants started looking to South Carolina or Virginia for their seafood or bought farmed fish instead of wild-caught fish.

Ryan Speckman with Locals Seafood, a prominent Raleigh-based seafood buyer, said he stayed away from inland and coastal seafood just after the storm, buying instead what was caught well off-shore.

North Carolina seafood in the fall is like a tomato in July, a thing at its best, Speckman said, meaning Florence hit at the worst time. He said Locals’ retail customers at the State Farmer’s Market expressed some concern about the seafood, but he told them that the state’s testing procedures ensured everything was safe to eat.

“It’s a perception thing,” Speckman said.

A setback

Commercial fishermen also felt the brunt of the changes in water quality. Hans Paerl, a professor and water quality researcher at the UNC-Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences, studies the impact of hurricanes on the state’s sounds and coastline. He worried about fish kills from low oxygen water, but said that hadn’t happened yet.

“The fish are pretty smart,” Paerl said. “Florence stalled for such a long time off the coast, it may have given the fish an early warning before the major dousing. They got smart and got out.”

But when the fish fled, that didn’t bode well for North Carolina’s fishermen, who had to head farther out to sea to chase down their catch, or in the case of pound net fishers, often came up empty.

Fisherman Steve Goodwin of Salty Catch in Beaufort said October and November are the most important for state fishermen, but the most desired fish have been chased off by the changes in water. Where he usually pulls 5,000 pounds of fish from his pound nets each week, he’s doing less than half that at 2,300.

“It’s been pretty hard; probably the worst fall we’ve ever had,” Goodwin said last month. “It is what it is, it’s just one of those years.”

Rebuilding?

Steadily, starting in the northern areas of the Outer Banks, down the coast to the southeast, the farms have started opening up and North Carolina shellfish is becoming available again.

North Carolina has the potential to become a boutique region for oysters, said Chris Matteo, the acting president of the state’s Shellfish Growers Association, comparing the various flavors to the subtleties of wine. But the farming industry is young, he said, and Florence could pose a dangerous setback.

“The only silver lining is this industry isn’t as mature as Virginia,” Matteo said, referencing one of the East Coast’s biggest oyster industries. “So the losses aren’t as damaging.”

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Hundreds of oyster cages used to grow oysters to maturity were displaced during Hurricane Florence. Jimmy Morris of Morris Family Shellfish Farms retrieved some of them more than 150 yards into the woods surrounding his plots near Sea Level, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Still, the loss of seed and equipment may set the industry back years, said Matteo, an oyster farmer near New Bern. His own losses are in the $600,000 range, including oysters he planned to get to market this year and seed for his farm and clients. He anticipates a two-year setback for the industry, saying that if all the dead oysters had made it to market, losses would be more like $15 million.

“We want to step on the accelerator but we ran into the wall,” Matteo said. “There are lots of growers with lots of damage.”

Robbie Mercer’s I&M Oyster Company is one of them. He has one of the largest oyster farms in the state at the mouth of the Pamlico River. Oyster farming was supposed to be Mercer’s retirement gig, the next chapter after decades of commercial fishing. After the storm, all he could think about was dead oysters and the hollow sounds of open shells clanking together in cages.

Florence destroyed 600 of his 1,055 oyster cages at his farm in Lowland, killed 3.5 million oysters and seed, and erased $800,000 worth of product with very little in the way of insurance.

“This was our big crop,” said Mercer, 56, in October. “It’s just devastating. I put so much into it and I can’t put it in there again. I can’t start over again. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Some who lost everything in this storm have lost it all before. This is the fourth time in 15 years Morris has been forced to rebuild.

In 2003, when Hurricane Isabel destroyed Morris’ home and hatchery, his photo appeared on the front page of The News & Observer. The publicity brought assurances of aid from officials, Mercer said, but never the money.

“So far you hear a lot of talk, but I’ve never seen any money,” Morris said.

As for Bayer, she said she and her husband plan to raise what survived and reassess their five farms at the end of the season, hoping to stick it out.

“North Carolina, we know she’s been hit,” Bayer said. “But she’s still got some good product available.”

By mid-November, Morris was still rebuilding, putting the docks back together and selling a few oysters until a week of rain closed things down once again. In the spring he’ll be back at it, growing seed and raising oysters.

Before the storm, his farm was the largest it had ever been, and Florence took just about all of it. But building back was always the path, Morris said, because he didn’t know another way.

“We’re watermen,” Morris said. “We grew up on the water, fished all our life. That’s all we know.”

Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson
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