In the heart of Carteret County, on the East Coast of North Carolina, lie numerous sounds, marshlands, and estuarine rivers, housing some of the nation’s most sought-after oysters. Harkers Island, Jarrett Bay, and the North River provide an ideal environment for both oyster farms and wild oyster reefs.
Here, in the town of Davis, you’ll find Mera Brothers Oyster Farm, a proud recipient of Thread Capital’s Shellfish Growers loan. Eduardo, one of the three brothers managing the farm, explains, “We’re an oyster farm based out of Oyster Creek, Davis, North Carolina. We cultivate oysters for restaurants, wholesale distribution, and bring some of the freshest seafood to North Carolina markets.”
The Mera Brothers, Robert, Eduardo, and Fernando specialize in a unique oyster variety called SageWave™, a green-gill oyster that’s very uncommon. It is only found in a couple of locations across the earth. North Carolina is one of them. It derives from a special algae named halsea which gives the oysters their green gill tint. Eduardo draws a comparison to wine, stating, “If you’re familiar with wine and how it tastes different due to the region, that’s called terroir. In the ocean, it’s called merroir [from the French Mer – Sea]. It’s defined by factors like water salinity and the type of vegetation present, such as seagrass and algae. These elements differentiate us and give our oysters their distinctive flavor, which we call SageWave™.”
Their journey is exceptional. Originally from Ecuador, they immigrated to the United States with their parents as children and eventually settled in North Carolina after living in Louisiana and New Jersey.
Inspired by the success of aquaculture in Virginia and their family’s background in shrimp farming in Ecuador, the Mera brothers decided to follow in their family’s footsteps. As Fernando explains, “Our family owned shrimp farms in Ecuador, and when we first proposed the idea, our dad was thrilled. He wanted us to continue our family tradition of farming the sea.”
They delved into research and were particularly influenced by Virginia’s booming oyster industry. Eduardo elaborates, “Researching what Virginia had achieved played a pivotal role. When we researched Virginia’s oyster GDP, it was exceptionally high six years ago when we started. North Carolina’s oyster farming industry was still in its infancy. So, we saw an opportunity, a gap, to establish a business and capitalize on North Carolina’s growth in the oyster business.”
In 2016, looking to learn more about the industry, they attended a conference where they met Chris Matteo, an oyster farmer and former president of the North Carolina Shellfish Growers Association. Eduardo recalls, “We attended a shellfish conference in New Bern in 2015 or 2016, and that’s where we met Chris, from Chadwick Creek Oysters who became our mentor. We started interning with him, pieced it all together, and started our venture.”
Starting with two small patches of water in Oyster Creek, the Meras diligently grew their business, coinciding with the expansion of the aquaculture industry in the state. As of February 2023, there are approximately 220 shellfish growers in North Carolina. This is part of a broader strategy by the NC Coastal Federation to transform the coastal aquaculture industry into a $100 million market, generating 1,000 new jobs by 2030.
Beyond its economic implications, this plan also holds significant environmental benefits. A single oyster can filter around 50 gallons of water daily, and when multiplied by millions of oysters in North Carolina’s coastal waters, it contributes to cleaner water and enhances coastline sustainability.
In October of 2022, Thread Capital, in collaboration with Array Community Development Corporation, launched a dedicated loan program for shellfish growers, thanks to state budget funding allocated in late 2021. Seeking to expand their business, the Mera brothers turned to Thread and became among the program’s first recipients.
“It was a seamless process,” they affirm. “We needed a refrigerated van to expand our business, and although we had to provide some background information, it was relatively straightforward. We’re very grateful for the opportunity, and the support we received from start to finish. Thread Capital even gave us the chance to participate in one of their events, Thread’s fifth-anniversary event, which opened more doors for us.”
As a Latino-owned business, Mera Brothers is the sole Latino-owned oyster farm on the East Coast. Despite potential challenges, the brothers have encountered nothing but enthusiasm and support from their community. Eduardo notes, “Surprisingly, there haven’t been any barriers in that regard. We’ve been honest and shared our story with everyone, and people have been receptive. Some of the locals from the islands of North Carolina have been particularly approachable and kind. From my perspective, it has never been an issue.”
Fernando adds, “Initially, there may have been some apprehension, given that we were entering an area where there weren’t many people like us doing this. However, as we got to know the locals and established our business, we encountered nothing but warmth and support. It’s been fantastic.”
Aquaculture in North Carolina offers significant opportunities, with the Mera brothers highlighting sustainability and relatively low startup costs as compelling reasons for aspiring entrepreneurs to consider oyster farming. Eduardo explains, “Startup costs aren’t exorbitant. You don’t need to invest in all the equipment upfront. You can take your time, plan well, and budget wisely. We’re also looking to expand and modernize our processes with sorters and other tools to streamline our operations. Currently, we’re doing everything manually, the old-school way.”
Mera Brothers Oysters are currently available at select stores and various restaurants in the Triangle area, as well as at pop-up events.
Eduardo concludes, “You can find us at Whole Foods, especially when we’re in season, which is now. However, even for farm-raised oysters, supplies can be limited at times. So, look for us in the Southeast at Whole Foods, local restaurants around the Triangle, and primarily at our pop-up events.”
Fernando adds, “For updates on our pop-up events, visit our website at Merabrothersoysters.com and follow us on Instagram @Merabrothersoysters.”
If you or anyone you know is interested in entering the shellfish farming industry or wants to learn more about the Shellfish Growers Loan Program, visit https://www.threadcap.org/shellfishgrowers/.