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The Best of North Carolina Seafood

By Donna M. Levy

Here in North Carolina, we are very lucky to have the fruits of the sea right at our fingertips. Journey to one of our coastal towns and lines are out the door at the seafood joints; everyone is looking for their fishy fix. Whether you want to recreate your favorite seafood dish or are new to the delights awaiting you beneath the waves, we’ll answer some common questions about purchasing, storing and preparing seafood, plus give you the lowdown on what’s available in North Carolina.

Make Informed Purchases

Don’t be intimidated at the fishmonger. Purveyors should be glad to answer questions regarding the quality and sourcing of their product. Make sure you purchase from a reputable seafood retailer, and talk to your fishmonger to see which items were landed by North Carolina fishermen. Find sellers who are candid about the origins of their selections. You’ll also want to use the following guidelines to ensure your catch is of the highest quality.

Whole fish

Whatever the variety, whole fish have certain characteristics that indicate freshness. They should have bright, clear, full eyes that are often protruding. Avoid fish with eyes that are cloudy, pink and sunken; this indicates a lack of freshness. The gills should be bright red or pink. Avoid fish with dull-colored gills that are gray, brown or green. Fresh fish should be free of loose or sloughing slime. The flesh should be firm yet elastic and shiny, with scales that adhere tightly. With time, the flesh becomes soft and slips away from the bone. Also note that any characteristic colors and markings start to fade as soon as a fish leaves the water.

Fish fillets or steaks

Fillets and steaks should have firm, elastic flesh and a fresh-cut, moist appearance with no browning around the edges. The flesh should be almost translucent, as if you can almost see through it. There should be little evidence of bruising or reddening of the flesh from retention of blood. Prepackaged steaks and fillets should contain minimal liquid; any fish stored in liquid will begin to deteriorate quickly.


Whether they are sold live, cooked or fresh-shucked, each species and form will have different quality signs to examine. Live clams, oysters and mussels should have shells that look moist and are tightly closed. If the shells gape slightly, have your retailer tap them. If the shells do not close or are cracked, do not purchase them. The bottom shell of an oyster should be well cupped—a sign that the oyster inside is plump and well formed. The “neck” or “snout” of soft-shelled clams should show movement. The meat of fresh-shucked clams, oysters or mussels should be plump and covered with their liquor which should be clear or slightly opalescent (slightly milky or light gray) and free of shell or grit. There should be no strong odor.


Scallops are not usually sold live because they are highly perishable and are shucked at sea shortly after harvest. On occasion, day boats will bring whole scallops to market or local restaurants. Fresh scallops will have a firm texture and a distinctly sweet odor. A sour or iodine smell indicates spoilage. The smaller bay scallops are usually creamy white, although there may be some normal light tan or pink coloration. The larger sea scallops are also generally creamy white, although they may show some normal light orange or pink color.

Live crabs and lobsters

If they are alive, they should show leg movement, and the tail of lobster should curl tightly underneath the body and not hang down when the lobster is picked up. Lobsters and crabs will not be very active if they have been refrigerated, but there should be a little bit of movement. Cooked lobsters or crabs in the shell should be bright red and have no unpleasant odor. Picked lobster meat will be snowy white with red tints, while crab meat is white with red or brown tints. There may be slight color variation depending on the species or the section of the body it was picked from. Cooked, picked lobster or crab meat should have good color and again no unpleasant odor.

Raw shrimp

These should be firm and have a mild odor. The shells of most varieties are translucent with a grayish green, pinkish tan or light pink tint. The shells should show no blackened edges or black spots, as this is a sign of lesser quality. Cooked shrimp should be firm and have no disagreeable odor. The color of the meat should be white with red or pink tints. Tiger shrimp have bluish colored shells with black lines between the segments of the shell (these are not black spots).

Whole squid

Look for eyes that are clear and full, meat that is very firm and skin that is untorn. The skin of fresh squid is cream colored with reddish brown spots. As squid ages, the skin turns pinkish and the flesh will yellow.

Enjoy the Health Benefits

Fish is among the healthiest foods on the planet. Here are just a few tidbits about its benefits:

High in important nutrients

Fish is packed with nutrients that many people are lacking. This includes high-quality protein, iodine, and various vitamins and minerals such as vitamin D, a fat-soluble nutrient that many people are low in. Vitamin D functions like a steroid hormone in your body. Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout and sardines also boast omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for growth and development, crucial for optimal body and brain function, and strongly linked to a reduced risk of many diseases.

May lower your risk of heart disease and stroke

Heart disease and strokes are the two leading causes of death worldwide. Eating at least one serving of fish per week has been linked to a reduced risk of heart attacks and strokes. Many large observational studies show that people who eat fish regularly have a lower risk of heart attacks, strokes and death from heart disease. Researchers believe that fatty types of fish are even more beneficial for heart health due to their high omega-3 fatty acid content.

May protect your vision in old age

Age-related macular degeneration is a leading cause of vision impairment and blindness that mostly affects older adults. Some evidence suggests that ingesting fish and omega-3 fatty acids may protect against this disease.

May boost brain health

Your brain function often declines with aging. While mild mental decline is normal, serious neurodegenerative ailments, like Alzheimer’s disease, are certainly concerning. Many observational studies show that people who eat more fish have slower rates of mental decline. Studies also reveal that people who eat fish every week have more gray matter, your brain’s major functional tissue, in the parts of the brain that regulate emotion and memory.

The next time you’re planning your weekly menu, don’t forget to add North Carolina seafood to your grocery list. From enjoying a wealth of delicious options, to supporting your fellow North Carolinian in the seafood industry, to reaping numerous health benefits, there are many reasons to incorporate our state’s fish and shellfish into your cooking repertoire.

Cast your line out there and reel in the deliciousness!

Donna M. Levy serves on the Culinary Adventures team at Catering Works in Raleigh. Her mission is to create delicious memories for you. Her specialties include personal chef services and cooking parties for both private and teambuilding events. Whether you are looking for a team-building experience for your corporate group or celebrating a special occasion with friends, she can design an on-site interactive cooking experience customized to suit your palate!

Commonly Asked Questions

Does seafood have a season like fruits and vegetables? Yes, seafood does have seasonality. Remember the old adage about oysters: they should only be consumed during months containing the letter “r.” In addition to asking your purveyor, online resources can help you figure out what is available by season, as well as by coastal region.

How can consumers ensure the quality and safety of seafood at home? Here are some general rules to follow: Keep unfrozen, raw seafood—including shucked clams and oysters—as close to 32 F as possible. In general, seafood should be kept at 40 F or below. Live shellfish, such as clams and oysters, should be kept refrigerated around 45 F.

Is seafood inspected by state or federal agencies, like meat and poultry is? Yes, seafood products fall under the scope of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Food and Drug Protection Division, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Shellfish Sanitation, part of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, ensures the safety of clams and oysters by monitoring harvesting waters and ensuring the proper handling of shellfish sold to the public.

In some markets, local seafood seems more expensive than imported products. Explain why consumers should prioritize local purveyors over price? Generally, prices for local seafood tend to be higher because labor costs are higher in the United States. When consumers purchase local seafood, they support the human and manufacturing infrastructure that maintains North Carolina’s commercial seafood industry. If we ever lose this foundation, we may never get it back. Some imported seafood, like peeled-and-deveined shrimp from Asian countries, may cost more per pound than shell-on, local shrimp. It’s important to know that peeled shrimp have undergone additional processing and are in a ready-to-cook form. Despite this convenience, remember that buying local contributes to the sustainability of North Carolina seafood.

What are some common seafood-borne illnesses consumers should know about and how can they avoid them? Foodborne illnesses can be caused by any food. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that raw animal foods are the most likely to be contaminated. Because some shellfish, like oysters, clams and mussels, are essentially a filter, they can accumulate bacteria that are present in the waters in which they live, which in turn makes them more likely to contain pathogens that could cause foodborne illnesses. Consumers can prevent seafood-borne illnesses at home by using safe handling practices:

  • Wash hands, utensils and cooking surfaces often.
  • Cook seafood to a minimum internal temperature of 145 F for 15 seconds.
  • Keep raw and cooked seafood separate to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Store seafood in the refrigerator below 40 F or in the freezer below 0 F.

It’s important to purchase from a reputable source. One very common illness is scombroid, or histamine, poisoning which happens when consumers ingest histamine and histamine-like chemicals from fish that are not promptly or properly cooled after capture. Histamine cannot be destroyed by cooking or freezing. It’s important to make sure the fish is handled properly from the moment it is caught. It needs to be placed on ice immediately and kept at 32 F until it’s ready to be cooked.