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Oyster Season a Harvest of Heartbreak Along the N.C. Coast

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MILL CREEK — Oyster lovers are coming up empty along the North Carolina coast this winter. The oyster season has been marred by parasites, pollution and a paltry harvest.

The oyster business has hit rock bottom in Mill Creek. Raymond Graham's family has fished here for four generations.

"Well, that's just the way it is. We just have to take whatever there is. There ain't no wishing it's another way cause it ain't," Graham says. "Something in the water is not letting them grow, not letting them set in."

That something may be a lot of things including a parasite called Dermo, and pollution from farms and sewage treatment plants.

"Long term, for our native oysters to come back, we're gonna have to do a better job of cleaning up our waters and keeping them clean," says Mike Marshall of theN.C. Division of Marine Fisheries.

In the meantime, State Marine Fisheries officials tell WRAL News they plan to test non-native oysters to see if they can survive.

Watermen along the coast are looking for anything to improve the plummeting yields of oyster season.

"Used to be a man could come out here and collect 15 to 25 bushels on opening day. You'd see 125 boats out there. Today, there are two boats and they're lucky if they can get a bushel between them, the two of them," says Raymond Graham, Jr.

There's a romantic simplicity to the life of the waterman, but also a ruthless reality: hurricanes, pollution and a dramatic decline in oysters. They all take their toll here. As they say in Mill Creek, what a waterman can make in a good year would starve the average North Carolina family to death.

"The young people, there's not a chance for them," says the senior Graham. "I mean a man would have to be a fool to think that he can make a future out of it."

Raymond Graham's parents used to run a shucking house that processed up to 800 bushels of oysters a week. Today, it's nothing more than a monument to a bygone era.

Some believe the future will be brighter. Voters statewide have approved a bond issue to upgrade sewage treatment plants. Raymond's not so sure.

"To me, the upgrading means making those plants bigger so the cities can take on more people while they dump more in the rivers," says Graham.

A new study shows that oysters are significantly affected by low levels of pesticides and metals in the water. The pollution damages their ability to fight disease and reproduce.

Raymond Graham serves on a state advisory committee whose goal is to find solutions and to manage the oyster crop. Graham says "to manage" is a bad choice of words.

"When you got nothing, how do you manage it? That's what we have on oysters. It's hard to manage them when you ain't got none," he says.

Clams are keeping Graham and others in business. You can find plenty of clams in the Newport River. They don't bring the money that oysters do, but as Graham says: "If you can't get a whole loaf, you take a half, whatever it takes to survive."

The warm winter is not helping. Destructive parasites thrive on the mild temperatures.

One positive note, the oyster harvest is up slightly in Pamlico Sound this season. However, officials say they doubt the harvest can be sustained.