Geography Guides Path to Oyster Business

Posted September 27, 2021, 12:59PM
Alumnus Ryan Bethea, ’14, harvests lessons from geospatial sciences program to cultivate oyster business. Photo by Jeyhoun Allebaugh.

Alumnus harvests lessons from geospatial sciences program to cultivate oyster business

Working in the food service industry is chaotic and demanding, but it teaches soft skills many people never have a chance to learn. Pairing those soft skills with technical skills isn’t always easy. 

However, it was that combination that led alumnus Ryan Bethea, ’14, on his journey to owning one of the most prominent oyster farms in North Carolina.

During a period as a bartender during a college hiatus, Bethea often listened to the clacking of his shoes on the hardwoods in the hall as he strode between the restaurant’s kitchen and dining room. 

“The noise was something that made me think I’m affecting people’s lives, but I also realized it was time to find a different path and find some purpose in life,” Bethea said.

Bethea returned to finish his degree at NCCU and enrolled in the Environmental, Earth and Geospatial Sciences (EEGS) program.

About that time, he read a magazine article that said the North Carolina coast is ripe for oyster farming, but few people are willing to put in the work. That ultimately led to Bethea’s business, Oysters Carolina.

“Ryan’s a really voracious learner and an energetic guy,” said Bethea’s EEGS adviser, Tim Mulrooney, Ph.D. “He had the soft skills to go along with the technical skills that we were able to teach him.” 

Mulrooney said he never anticipated one of his GIS students would become an oyster farmer, but the program ticked all the boxes for Bethea to do just that. 

Data-driven decision-making is paramount for efficient planning and design, and geospatial studies offer deep insight into factors affecting an outcome, Bethea said. 

Geospatial information is widely used in various fields – from determining the site of the next big-box home improvement store to drawing legislative electoral maps. Web app developers and corn farmers also use geospatial information. While these skill sets are developed and honed by the EEGS program, mastery also requires patience and curiosity, Bethea said.

He said his classes with professors William Harris, Ph.D., Chris McGinn, Ph.D. and Mulrooney all contributed to his success.

“They were great professors,” Bethea said. “I took oceanography with Dr. Harris where we studied sand formations, Coriolis effects, currents, and a lot more.” 

This area of study, known as geomorphology, continues to be of use in his business. “Understanding how these processes are taking shape is information I use every day,” Bethea said.

After graduating from NCCU, Bethea earned a certificate in oyster genetics and aquaculture from the William & Mary Virginia Institute of Marine Science. He then taught science and social studies at Terrell Lane Middle School in Franklin County for three years as his plans for an oyster farm in Westmouth Bay near Harkers Island started to take shape.

“I was teaching during the week, and over the weekends and summers, I was building the oyster farm,” he said. “You have to have a lot of patience in oyster farming. It takes one to two years for an oyster to fully mature, and sometimes you’re not completely sure if it will yield the results you need.”

Now, Bethea paddles into the bay to check the oyster cages daily, following sustainability practices that include hand picking the oysters from their cages. His goal is to harvest his oysters and deliver them the same day– anywhere in North Carolina.

His efforts have already gained statewide attention. In 2016, Bethea’s harvest won the North Carolina Seafood Festival’s “Oyster of the Year” award.

Bethea hopes oysters will someday be as synonymous with North Carolina as barbecue and craft beers.

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