Here’s Where to Get the Freshest Foraged Seafood in North Carolina
Ana Shellem sells sustainable seashells by the seashore.
“The wild harvest will always have my heart,” says Ana Shellem. You’ll find her getting down and dirty in the muddy marshes, decked out in waders with a bikini top and salty braids, carrying the biggest grin in tow. That’s because this is her dream job. Shellem is an independent fisherwoman, and a badass one at that, operating her own female-owned company for sustainable seafood foraging.
Call it kismet that she moved from Harlem to North Carolina, where she met Jon Shellem, her now-husband, who introduced her to the marsh and, after marriage, the gift of the most on-brand last name one could ask for. She started Shell’em Seafood Co. in 2017, a boutique shellfishing company in Wrightsville Beach, from her houseboat. Now you can taste how her fresh, local catch makes a difference at restaurants (see below!) across the state.
Unlike most people’s monotonous nine-to-five-er, her days are never the same. Shellem forages in the wild, in season, and with the food chain in mind. She reaches for clams, mussels, oysters, stone crab, seaweed, sea beans, and whelk (sea snails). Shellem picked up foraging from her husband and launched the company after feeling food- and beverage-industry burnout. She started bringing shellfish samples to her chef friends, and then eventually earned her commercial fishing license to cut out the middleman.
“Wilmington is a wonderful place to harvest wild shellfish,” she explains, “because there are plenty of preserved islands and local estuaries that have clean water with high salinity.” She prefers to stay away from any river mouths, as those areas can drastically change the taste of the shellfish. For oysters, she seeks the prettiest—the right shape and cup, deemed worthy of her personal palate.
“We are lucky enough to get and catch fresh fish and shellfish regularly; that's how folks at local restaurants should eat too,” she says, noting the dedication that goes into this job. “Fishermen and women work so hard, and it's a shame that local catches are exported [when] we have a plethora of abundant species at our fingertips.”
The end game is sustainability. In a sea of abundance, there are sketchy practices at seafood joints and restaurants across the state, resorting to mislabeled seafood or products shipped in from overseas—frozen, never fresh. The fish can cringingly take weeks until it makes it onto a menu and into a consumer’s mouth. “I hope to help educate consumers on sustainability, seasonality, and how commercial fishermen and women are following regulations to protect our resources for future generations,” says Shellem.
Wild oysters in the summer? Not a chance. They’re seasonal to fall and winter in these waters, just like your juicy, ripe tomatoes are best in summer. You can get oysters outside of their season (October 15 - March 31 for Shellem)—just know they’re farmed versus wild. It’s Shellem’s job to shine a light on education. “I will always eat based on wild seasons—I don't start eating them raw until the water is cold enough,” she says. “I am opinionated from observation, regulations, and witnessing climate change in real-time.”
To Shellem, foraging is also about mindfulness. “It may look like I’m playing in the mud all day, but there’s a lot more to it,” she says, even citing therapeutic benefits for an otherwise control freak. “There are so many factors, often unexpected, that will make your job harder—in turn, you’ll shimmy around and come up with different techniques.”
Legally, in North Carolina, you can’t harvest before sunrise or after sunset—and never on Sundays, for biblical reasons. It’s not as simple as plucking a mussel from the water and calling it a day. “I only harvest at low tide and the tide changes every day,” she adds. “Sometimes that's the crack of dawn and sometimes that's just before the sun sets.” But there’s more to look at than just the tide. Shellem observes the wind direction and the moon for her ability to gather in abundance. Rain is also an issue, which can contaminate the shellfish and change its salinity. She therefore has to plan accordingly and keep her chef contacts updated on the reality of what's available. “This is also why I'm so thankful to work with the chefs that I do,” she says, “They understand that Mother Nature is in charge.”
If you’ve been lucky enough to pop one of Shellem’s wild-harvested sea delicacies in your mouth, the difference in both taste and appearance is evident. A one-woman show, she handpicks the best and most beautiful sea creatures, cleans them, and then hand delivers them to a slew of North Carolina’s most visionary chefs.
At Seabird, in downtown Wilmington, chef Dean Neff works around the clock to ensure the menu is sustainable and from the native waters. Delicacies from Shell’em Seafood Co. dot the daily-changing menu, and that includes strikingly beautiful oysters, clams, mussels, and even seaweed, which Neff turns into concoctions like vibrant salsa. “Ana is a small-scale forager of seafood who understands low impact sustainable harvesting practices,” says Neff. “She really cares deeply about the health of our waters and beaches—for now and in the future.” He notes Shellem’s process and ethos defines Wilmington and gives it a sense of place. “[Her] list of bivalves, whelk, and occasionally sea greens allows us an opportunity to focus on how unique and special these ingredients truly are to our area.”
“We’ve mostly used Ana’s mussels,” says David Ellis, chef de Cuisine at Ashley Christensen’s Poole’s Diner in Raleigh. “The big attraction has been the freshness. Ana will harvest for us early in the morning and then drive them herself to have them to us by noon,” further noting the distinct difference in taste vs. mussels coming from out of state. “She’s very curious about the whole picture and is willing to harvest things that I can’t source elsewhere,” Ellis adds, who is most excited about a seafood stew showcasing Shellem’s sea beans. “It’s a collaboration between chef and purveyor that is quite unique and helps to inspire new creations for the menu.”
At the end of the day, when the sun sets over the sea, Shellem finds peace when seeing a new customer get excited about a dish or a consumer waxing about her wild-harvested sea snacks. “I hope to inspire others to protect the sea,” says Shellem, “other fishermen to apply greedless and mindful practices, and for women to dive head first into male-dominated fields with confidence, grit, and grace.”