A Primer on North Carolina’s Seafood
North Carolina’s abundance of marine and freshwater resources provides seafood lovers along the Eastern Seaboard with a diverse array of fish and fishery products to enjoy.
North Carolina has about 322 miles of ocean shoreline and the second largest estuarine system (bays, sounds and wetlands) in the country, which amounts to almost 12,009 miles of estuarine coastline. In total, the state has 12,331 miles of coastal shoreline. Learn more from UNC-TV’s “Tracing the Coastline.”
On the coast, there are both wild-caught and mariculture producers. Harvesting occurs in the ocean, near the shore, and in sounds such as the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. There are over 70 wild marine species that North Carolina fishermen catch in coastal environments. Many of the businesses that support the fisheries and seafood processing are also located in the coastal regions of the state.
Soft-shell crabs are a popular and lucrative part of North Carolina’s coastal aquaculture sector.
Crabbers select Atlantic blue crabs that are just about to naturally shed their hard shells, a process that makes way for new growth. The crabs are placed in special trays that recirculate seawater and held there until they shed. The new shell is soft and edible at this stage. The soft crabs are promptly removed from the trays for processing, packing and transport to retail seafood stores and restaurants.
In 2019, North Carolina produced nearly 851,000 pounds of soft crabs, according to statistics from the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF).
Cultivated oysters are another profitable delicacy, particularly for the half-shell market in restaurants. In 2019, North Carolina shellfish growers produced almost 850,000 pounds of cultivated oysters, DMF reports.
Further inland from the coast, several freshwater finfish are raised as food sources.
Tilapia is a subtropical fish that is cultivated indoors and sold live to Asian metropolitan markets along the East Coast. North Carolina tilapia growers produce over 1 million pounds of tilapia annually.
North Carolina also produces over 2 million pounds of cultivated catfish every year. In 2019, nine producers harvested nearly 11,000 pounds of crawfish, according to data presented at the 2020 N.C. Aquaculture Development Conference.
Since the late 1880s, western North Carolina has sustained a dynamic freshwater rainbow trout fishery. North Carolina is second in the nation for the production of trout for food markets. In 2019, producers harvested nearly 5 million pounds of trout, according to data presented at the 2020 N.C. Aquaculture Development Conference. Most North Carolina trout is raised through aquaculture or cultivated in concrete raceways, but some producers grow trout in earthen ponds.
Seafood Supply Chain
The basic supply chain for North Carolina seafood starts with the fishermen who often work for themselves as small businesses, using their own equipment to harvest a number of marine species during the year. Once they reach their harvest limit on any given trip, fishermen travel to a fish house to offload their catch. In most cases, watermen already have a business relationship with a certain fish house and return to the same fish house over and over.
Next steps in the seafood supply chain are fish houses and their wholesale customers. Generally, fish houses do minor processing, such as heading shrimp or filleting finfish. In some cases, they add substantial value to seafood, such as cooking crabs and picking the meat, and maybe taking the next step to produce heat-and-serve crab cakes.
Fish houses typically sell their seafood to coastal restaurants and seafood markets, but North Carolina seafood becomes less available to consumers the farther their local retail markets and restaurants are from the coast.
Some watermen and fish houses sell directly to consumers through family-run roadside stands or to community supported fisheries or community supported agriculture programs. Learn more in this North Carolina Sea Grant’s inventory of N.C. fish houses.
A 2012 supply chain analysis by North Carolina Sea Grant showed distribution north along the U.S. East Coast is highly developed. Routes north from the North Carolina coast into markets such as Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Norfolk and the Chesapeake Bay; Philadelphia; New York City; and Boston are mature and well-established.
Impact on North Carolina’s Economy
From 2016 to 2019, the total dockside value of North Carolina seafood, estimated by the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), ranged from $77.9 million to $86.6 million. The volume of all species landed by fishermen ranged from 45.8 million pounds to nearly 53 million pounds.
DMF calculates a ballpark monetary value of all wild-caught species that fishermen harvest, which represents the average prices fish-house owners pay to fishermen when they unload seafood at their docks. These commercial landing figures approximate the economic value of commercial marine species before they are distributed to and sold by retailers and wholesalers to the final customer, the seafood consumer.
In 2019, the state’s most valuable wild, commercial fisheries were live Atlantic blue crabs followed by shrimp, flounder and then shellfish, including clam and oyster meats.
The bulk of the wild-caught and mariculture seafood industry is located in 20 counties in proximity to the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds or the Atlantic Ocean.
New research published in 2021 estimated both the demand for North Carolina seafood and the impact of the state’s commercial-fishing industry on local economies and the state overall.
The study found the North Carolina wild-caught seafood industry contributes nearly $300 million in value and 5,500 jobs to the state’s economy. Consumer demand for North Carolina seafood appears strong across the state, and they have a preference for seafood from North Carolina and U.S. sources over imported seafood. As a result, the commercial industry has opportunities to increase its market share through targeted marketing, home-preparation guidance, new supply chains and prepared-seafood meals.
The 2012 study by North Carolina Sea Grant estimated that 40 to 60 percent of the state’s seafood is transported to Northeastern U.S. markets. The majority of these out-of-state markets are wholesale consortiums in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and New York City (e.g., the Fulton Fish Market).
For context for the state’s seafood industry, it helps to look at the seafood industry in the nation as a whole.
U.S. Seafood Industry
In 2019, the average per person availability of seafood for consumption in the United States, including fish and shellfish, was 19.2 pounds, according to the National Fisheries Institute. By comparison, the average per person availability of beef for consumption was 57.9 pounds and was 95.8 pounds for chicken, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The United States was the world’s fourth largest seafood exporter and the largest importer of seafood by value in 2016, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. China was the world’s largest exporter.
In 2019 this country imported 6.0 billion pounds of fishery products valued at $22.2 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The quantity of imported seafood that is consumed in the United States is between 70 percent and 85 percent; however, a sizable volume of this imported seafood is caught by American fishermen, is exported overseas for processing, and then is reimported to this country.
According to NOAA, fishermen across the United States harvested 9.3 billion pounds of seafood in 2019 worth $5.5 billion. Finfish comprised about 89 percent of total harvests, and the average price paid to fishermen was $0.59 per pound.
The most profitable marine fisheries were salmon ($707 million), lobster ($668 million), crabs ($636 million), scallops ($572 million) and shrimp ($467 million).
Alaska led all states in volume landings in 2019 with over 60% of the total catch, followed by the Gulf of Mexico (15%), Atlantic (13%), and Pacific regions (11%).
The U.S production of freshwater and marine cultivated fish and shellfish was about 680 million pounds worth $1.5 billion in 2018, an increase of 49 million pounds from 2017. Catfish, crawfish, and trout dominated freshwater production, while the top species for finfish aquaculture is Atlantic salmon. Oysters are the primary species produced in shellfish aquaculture.
The volume of wild fish and shellfish harvested from U.S. waters is about eight to 10 times greater than that produced by aquaculture in this country. The U.S. ranks 17th worldwide in aquaculture production; however, over half of the imported seafood that is consumed in this country is estimated to come from aquaculture.
Also, in 2019, the value of processed seafood products in the U.S. was over $11 billion. The primary items produced were canned seafood (salmon, tuna, clams, oysters and shrimp), fresh and frozen fillets and steaks, breaded fish portions, and breaded shrimp.
According to the National Fisheries Institute, the five most popular seafood in the U.S. from 2007 to 2018 have been shrimp, salmon, canned tuna, tilapia, and Alaskan pollock. In 2019, NOAA revised its consumption model to more accurately reflect improvements in processing seafood. As a result, Alaska Pollock and tilapia now rank fourth and fifth, respectively.
Other popular species are pangasius — a freshwater fish imported from Asia and often used in fish and chips — as well as cod, crab, catfish and clams.
Shrimp has been the most popular seafood since 2006. Clams and crab have continued to rank among the top 10 since the middle of the last decade.
The waters of North Carolina are a public trust, meaning that certain natural and cultural resources are preserved for public use, and that the government owns and must protect and maintain these resources for the public’s use.
Many early residents of the Outer Banks migrated to North Carolina’s coast from the Tidewater region of Virginia and the shores of Maryland, including groups who originally immigrated from southwest England and Ireland’s Ulster province. Traits of Irish and British English remain in the local dialect, creating a distinctive regional character. Today, “Carolina Brogue” is recognized as a vital part of the state’s coastal culture. Read about Ocracoke’s Brogue.
Seafood has been important to North Carolina’s coastal heritage and economy for over four centuries. Families who can trace their lineage to the earliest coastal settlers now commercially fish for hard crabs, oysters, and a variety of finfish.
And they created unique recipes with the seafood they caught, such as fish cakes, fried fresh mullet, oyster dressing, shrimp pie, stewed hard crabs, Hatteras clam chowder, and Calabash-style seafood.
Traditionally, community events along the coast, such as Day at the Docks, the North Carolina Oyster Festival, the Outer Banks Seafood Festival, the North Carolina Seafood Festival and the Sneeds Ferry Shrimp Festival celebrate not only seafood culinary traditions of the coast but also avant-garde preparations by well-known chefs from across eastern North Carolina and beyond.
The North Carolina seafood industry has a strong impact on the state’s economy. It not only supports the livelihoods of commercial fishermen and their families, but also seafood processors and packers, seafood retailers, and independent restaurants — not just those along the coast but also in metropolitan areas such as Greenville, Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, and in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
North Carolina Cultural Heritage Resources (Videos)
Health and Safety
Because of the potential health benefits of seafood, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, recommend individuals eat eight ounces of fish and shellfish per week based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Unfortunately, the average American is consuming far less seafood than recommended, despite its nutritional advantages relative to other high-protein foods.
Compared to red meat, pork and poultry, seafood is considered a low-calorie protein source. Lean finfish species such as flounder contain about 100 calories or fewer per 3-ounce cooked portion. Fattier finfish like mackerel have about 200 calories or less per 3-ounce cooked serving. An individual can consume fewer calories to meet their daily protein requirements, which is why seafood is a good choice for weight-loss diets.
Seafood is a complete source of protein because it contains all of the essential amino acids for optimal health. A 3-ounce cooked serving of most finfish and shellfish provides about one-third of the average daily recommended level of protein. Seafood protein is easier to digest because it has less connective tissue than red meat or poultry, which is why it flakes when cooked and is easily cut or sliced. For individuals who have difficulty chewing or digesting their food, seafood is a sound choice for satisfying their daily protein requirements.
Current dietary guidance says individuals should strive to reduce their consumption of total fat to less than 30 percent of the calories they eat and limit their intake of saturated fat. Most types of fish and shellfish contain less than five percent total fat, and the fattiest fish such as mackerel have a fat content similar to lean red meats. Current dietary recommendations advise individuals to increase the proportion of unsaturated fat in their diets. A sizable portion of fat in seafood is unsaturated, and one type of polyunsaturated fat present in seafood that has health benefits is omega-3 fatty acids.
The Omega-3 Benefit
Research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may aid in reducing the risk of heart disease, in part by decreasing the amount of some blood fats and possibly cholesterol. Seafood is viewed as an excellent dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids. Generally fattier fish contain more omega-3 fatty acids than leaner fish. Seafood is viewed as an excellent dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids. This chart compares the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in various types of seafood.
Current dietary guidance says individuals should reduce their consumption of cholesterol to less than 300 milligrams per day. Nearly all kinds of fish and shellfish contain less than 100 milligrams of cholesterol per 3-ounce cooked serving. Shrimp contain higher levels of cholesterol, with 170 milligrams per 3-ounce cooked portion, as does fish roe and caviar.
Vitamins and Minerals
Fish contain levels of B vitamins that are similar to other protein-rich foods. Fattier fish can be a good source of Vitamin D and Vitamin A. Most types of seafood are a reasonable source of minerals such as phosphorus, potassium and selenium. Clams and oysters are a good source of iron, zinc, magnesium, copper, iodine and other trace minerals.
Go to Seafood Health Facts for more detailed information on the nutritional content of fish and shellfish.
Some people suffer from allergies to crab, finfish (e.g., flounder, dolphinfish or sea bass), lobster and shrimp.
Failing to keep certain finfish below 40°F can also cause sickness in some people. And some finfish, particularly freshwater species, can contain elevated levels of mercury that may be harmful to young children.
Protein is a natural component of many foods, and seafood is high in protein. Some proteins, however, can incite allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. Their immune systems react to certain food proteins as though they were harmful bacteria, parasites or viruses.
Symptoms can range from mild to severe and affect each person differently, according to Medical News Today. Mild symptoms of seafood allergies may include tingling of the mouth, burning sensation in the lips and mouth, facial swelling, hives, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction and often occurs soon after exposure to an allergen. Symptoms, which tend to manifest quickly and rapidly worsen, may include a swift decrease in blood pressure, shortness of breath, a fast heartbeat, rapid swelling of the throat, lips, face and mouth, or loss of consciousness.
Federal law requires all foods that are not raw agricultural commodities and that contain a major food allergen be labeled to clearly identify the name of the food source from which the allergen originates.
Histamine poisoning is sometimes confused with an allergic reaction to fish. It results from eating certain species of finfish — primarily bluefish, mackerel, mahi mahi and tuna — that contain naturally high levels of histidine, one of the building blocks of protein. Histidine is found not only in seafood but also in meat, poultry and whole grains.
As certain bacteria grow, they produce an enzyme that converts histidine into histamine over a wide range of temperatures. Their growth is most rapid at 70°F and higher. Histamine formation is typically a result of high-temperature spoilage.
Symptoms of histamine poisoning can include tingling or burning in or around the mouth or throat; rash or hives; drop in blood pressure; headache; dizziness; itching; nausea; vomiting; or respiratory distress.
To prevent histamine formation at home, store histamine-prone finfish below 40°F — the closer to 32°F, using a combination of ice and refrigeration, the better if the fish will not be frozen.
Recreational anglers should immediately ice histamine-prone fish when they land their catch to minimize the growth of bacteria that can produce histamine.
Once formed, histamine cannot be destroyed by freezing or cooking.
Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and is released into the air through natural causes and industrial pollution. Mercury can enter various water bodies where bacteria transform it into methylmercury, a form toxic to humans. Methylmercury can accumulate in the flesh of finfish that are eventually eaten by humans. The nervous systems of fetuses and young children are especially sensitive to methylmercury exposure.
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, recommend that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding consume between 8 and 12 ounces of a variety of seafood per week, from choices that are lower in mercury. For guidance on the marine species to avoid due to mercury concerns, go to Advice about Eating Fish.
Parasites (e.g., roundworms or tapeworms) are common in the natural world, and all living organisms, including fish, can have them. Parasites become a human health hazard when people consume raw or lightly preserved fish such as sashimi, sushi and ceviche. These products should be prepared with commercially frozen fish that have held at an internal temperature of -4°F or below for seven days. The temperatures of home freezers, which range between 0°F and 10°F, may not be cold enough to kill parasites.
Most parasites cause mild-to-moderate illness, but some symptoms can be severe, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain or swelling.
Cooking seafood to and holding it at an internal temperature of at least 145°F for 15 seconds will eliminate disease-causing bacteria, parasites and viruses that can make seafood unsafe to eat.
According to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) FishWatch project, “seafood is sustainable when fish and shellfish are caught for human consumption by fishermen operating under fishery management rules that conserve fish stocks and the ecosystems that support them.” In other words, seafood is sustainable when the population of fish and shellfish are managed in a way that provides for today’s consumption needs without damaging marine species’ ability to reproduce and be available for future generations.
NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries, regulates ocean fishing in this country. All federally managed fisheries are required to have fishery management plans that foster sustainable fisheries. NOAA also provides information on the status of each fishery stock based on the best available scientific information.
U.S. fisheries management is guided by the Magnuson Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 1976, which covers ocean waters out to 200 miles from the coastal mainland. Updated regularly, the act also includes regional fishery management councils where regulations are proposed through a stakeholder process that emphasizes public participation.
Some migratory finfish — such as Atlantic tunas that travel through North Carolina waters and into international waters — are managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). The National Marine Fisheries Service is an ICCAT member and partner.
North Carolina is one of the few states with membership in multiple U.S. regional fisheries management councils, such as the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. These councils craft management rules and the National Marine Fisheries Service implements them.
There are also a variety of marine species found in North Carolina that are managed by a group of coastal states working collaboratively through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The fishery populations that are native to the state’s coastal waters are overseen by the N.C .Marine Fisheries Commission, which establishes regulations that are implemented by the N. C. Division of Marine Fisheries. The state jurisdiction extends to three miles from the shore.
DMF scientists prepare fishery management plans for adoption by the MFC for all commercially and recreationally significant species or fisheries. DMF carries out data collection, analysis, writing and presentation of management plans, and ensures compliance to plan regulations. The division and commission are the only authorities in the state that can implement plans and regulations to manage the state’s marine and estuarine fisheries.
All the interstate councils and North Carolina agencies rely on scientific methodology, data, public comments and management plans to ensure the continuity of fishery populations so these public resources are available to the next generation of seafood consumers.
Fish and Seafood Handling at Home
By buying local, you are supporting North Carolina fishing communities and boosting coastal economies. Ask your local seafood market where they get their products, and get to know your fishmonger so they can give you updates on what catch to expect. In addition, the N.C. Seafood Availability Charts highlight seafood availability by season for the state’s coastal waters by region: North and South.
For help identifying the quality characteristics of fresh seafood, visit North Carolina Sea Grant’s Quality Counts guide.
To protect the quality and safety of your seafood purchases at home, follow the guidance below.
- Raw finfish: Keep refrigerated below 40°F. Otherwise, freeze and use within three to six months.
- Live clams and oysters: Store between 38°F and 45°F. Discard clams and oysters with gapping shells that do not shut when lightly tapped.
- Live crabs: Cook them the day you buy them. Discard any that die prior to cooking.
- Cooked crabmeat: Refrigerate below 40°F.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cooked seafood can be stored in the refrigerator up to four days. Refrigeration slows but does not halt the growth of spoilage bacteria.
How to Freeze Your Fresh Seafood
Fish have varying amounts of fat content depending on the species. The leanest fish, such as flounder, have a white- or light-colored flesh, while fattier fish, such as salmon or mackerel, usually have a darker hue.
The list below shows the average total fat content in a three-ounce serving of common finfish, according to Seafood Health Facts:
- High Fat (10 grams or greater): Herring, mackerel, salmon (Atlantic, coho, sockeye, chinook)
- Medium Fat (5 to 10 grams): Bluefish, catfish, swordfish
- Low Fat (2 to 5 grams): Halibut, mussels, oysters, ocean perch, salmon (chum, pink)
- Very Low Fat (less than 2 grams): Crab, clams, flounder, mahi mahi, scallops, shrimp, tuna
The fat in finfish tends to be polyunsaturated. When they react with oxygen, these fats will degrade and create off-odors and flavors. This process can happen even in frozen storage.
To maintain quality, finfish can be pretreated before freezing and frozen storage. We recommend a lemon-gelatin glaze that was developed by extension specialists with the NC State University Seafood Laboratory.
Measure ¼ cup of bottled lemon juice into a pint container and fill the rest of the container with water. Dissolve one packet of unflavored gelatin in ½ cup of this mixture. Heat the remaining liquid to boiling, and then stir the dissolved gelatin mixture into the boiling liquid. Cool to room temperature.
Dip the fillet or steak in the liquid. Lift it out and allow to drain for a few seconds. Wrap the fish tightly in a heavy, protective plastic film, such as Saran Wrap or similar heavy film. Freeze quickly.
Fish frozen with a gelatin glaze will remain fresh longer than those with no glaze.
Clams and oysters are best if frozen in their shells, which makes them easier to shuck with no loss of juice. Thoroughly wash the shells and place live shellfish in moisture vapor-resistant bags if you have plenty of freezer space to accommodate them.
If you’re tight on freezer space, however, you can shuck the shellfish. First, wash clams and oysters, discarding any shellfish that have died. These you can identify by gently tapping shells that are open slightly. If they do not close when tapped, they are likely dead. Shuck the shellfish into a strainer (save the liquid, known as liquor) and remove any pieces of shell.
If necessary, the clams and oysters can be rinsed to remove any sand. Place clams and oysters and their liquor in a plastic container or freezer bag — leaving ½-inch headspace — then seal and freeze. If there is not enough liquor to fill the container, use ice water.
Remove the head from whole shrimp, but leave the shell on. Place the shrimp in a freezer container and cover them with ice water.
Leave enough headspace for the water to expand when frozen. Use small or medium-size containers so the shrimp will freeze more quickly.
Avoid using freezer bags, because the shrimp tails can puncture them, causing leaks.
Cooked, picked crabmeat should be frozen in covered, airtight containers or in heavy-duty freezer bags. Massage the bag to force as much air out of it before placing the meat in a freezer.
Another way to extend the shelf life of cooked crabmeat is to freeze it in preparations, such as crab cakes or casseroles. Blending cooked crabmeat with non-seafood ingredients tends to protect its tender texture by keeping it from becoming stringy.
Refrigerator: Thaw seafood in a refrigerator at 40°F or below. Never thaw seafood at room temperature or with warm or hot water.
Cold water: For quicker results, place frozen seafood under cold running water. Place fillets or shucked shellfish in a tightly closed plastic bag, then immerse it in a deep pan of cold water and allow additional cold water to run over it.
Always wash your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds before and after handling any seafood.
Keep raw and cooked seafood separated. Cross-contamination is a common cause of food-borne illness in the home. Never let raw seafood come in contact with cooked seafood or any raw or cooked food. Never place cooked seafood in the same container that held raw seafood unless it has been thoroughly cleaned. Do not use the same plate that held raw seafood to serve cooked fish or shellfish.
Marinate seafood in the refrigerator at or below 41°F, not at room temperature. Dispose of your marinades after use because harmful bacteria may build up in the raw seafood juices.
Use an acrylic cutting board to cut raw seafood, never a wooden one. Bacteria can embed and grow in the crevices of wooden boards. Wash the board with detergent and hot water and sanitize it thoroughly after use. You can use a homemade sanitizer by mixing one tablespoon of bleach with one gallon of water.
Wash counters and utensils with detergent and hot water after use. If counters have been in contact with raw seafood or juices, sanitize them. Use paper towels and dispose of them after working with raw seafood in the kitchen. Bacteria linger in clothes, towels, and sponges.
Scrub live clams and oysters with a stiff brush under cold, running water before shucking or cooking.
For many people, of course, cooking is almost as fun as eating fresh seafood.
Research by North Carolina Sea Grant shows that consumers would purchase more local seafood to eat at home if they were confident in their cooking skills. Survey respondents indicated that recipes would enrich their experience cooking with fresh seafood at home.
To that end, Sea Grant has been adding new recipes to its online resource Mariner’s Menu. You can choose from more than 200 recipes, including appetizers and entrees that feature crab, clams, finfish, oysters, scallops and shrimp.
These recipes were crafted by a former Sea Grant extension educator and her hand-picked volunteers using seafood harvested by North Carolina fishermen. Preparations that did not score a four or a five on five-point scale were reformulated to correct problems with flavor, texture and appearance.
Through the website, people can learn how to discern seafood quality at the retail counter; to safely handle and freeze raw seafood; and to prepare flavorful, nutritious meals at home using trustworthy recipes developed by people who grew up along the coast eating fresh, local seafood. These are comprehensive resources to help people select, store and cook North Carolina seafood.