Pamlico Aquaculture Field Laboratory

A Fishy Business

In December 2019/January 2020, Eatby Lauren KruchtenLeave a Comment

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NC State’s aquaculture program raises fish for local restaurants.

Not all fish comes from the ocean. For Raleigh’s Locals Seafood and Locals Oyster Bar, some fish, including striped bass and hybrid striped bass, are grown in tanks at NC State’s Fish Barn and Pamlico Aquaculture Field Laboratory in Aurora, NC. Aquaculture is a burgeoning industry in North Carolina, one of the fastest-growing segments of agriculture in the state, and it helps take pressure off of the wild stock in our oceans while yielding more consistent and reliable-sized fish. This is hugely beneficial to people like Lin Peterson, the co-founder of Locals Seafood and an alum of NC State’s Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology program. Peterson buys NC State’s pure stripers at market size and then sells them to chefs at various local restaurants, including Locals Oyster Bar. “Chefs love [these fish]; our retail has been great,” Peterson says. 

The ideal size of the fish is achieved through selective breeding, Peterson explains, not genetic modification. Commercial farmers raise hybrid striped bass at their own facilities on the coast that are spawned with adult fish from the university to produce the crop. Pure striped bass are produced at the Pamlico Field Laboratory, where the adults are held in indoor, temperature-controlled tanks with optimal water quality, diet and other factors until they spawn in the spring. The larvae that hatch from the eggs are then raised in farm ponds and, once the fish get large enough, they are moved into tanks where they live in water from the Castle Hayne aquifer and from the Pamlico Sound.

Hatchery Manager Robert Clark with a farmed striped bass.
Hatchery Manager Robert Clark with a farmed striped bass.

Additionally, through a partnership with Raleigh-based Infinity Hundred Farms, three of the tanks holding hybrid striped bass at the Fish Barn are part of a greenhouse-based aquaponic gardening system. In the system, fish waste is oxygenated with water and run to a 9,000-gallon deep-bed hydroponics tank which grows lettuce, herbs and other produce sold to more than 20 restaurants around town. “Infinity Hundred is all about trying to do more with less—growing more food for more people using less resources,” says founder and principal farmer David McConnell. 

Ben Reading, facility director at both aquaculture sites and an assistant professor in NC State’s Applied Ecology department, says that, while some people are wary of farm-raised seafood at first, the taste is indistinguishable from wild-caught seafood. You won’t be able to tell the difference in Locals Oyster Bar’s crudo, grilled fish sandwich or seared fish filet, because, whether farmed or wild, striped bass maintain the same mild, clean flavor. “There are lots of concerns about global aquaculture and there are lots of questions,” Peterson says. “But there are tons of regulations in place that produce great products in North Carolina. We’re going to educate people on why local aquaculture is good when it’s done right.”


Bust the Oyster Myth

Locals Oysters Bar; Photo by Owen Scott Jordan
Locals Oysters Bar; Photo by Owen Scott Jordan

There’s a persistent adage that you should only eat oysters in months with the letter “r” in the name—September through April. Locals Oyster Bar chef Eric Montagne and Locals Seafood owner Lin Peterson insist that it’s not true—at least, not anymore—thanks to modern oyster farming methods. Today’s oyster farmers have found a way to produce triploid oysters, which, unlike diploid oysters, don’t spawn in the summer months. This means they can be enjoyed all year long. Peterson explains that when an oyster spawns, its quality suffers; it becomes soft and watery as it expends all of its energy reproducing rather than getting nice and fat for consumption. Oyster farmers grow triploid oysters in the same natural habitat of wild diploid oysters, in North Carolina’s coastal sounds. The triploid oysters are grown either in floating bags on the surface of the water or in cages along the bottom of the sound. Locals Oyster Bar offers a rotating variety of raw oysters sourced from five different oyster farmers on the coast.

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