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CoastLine: Ana Shellem on harvesting shellfish for star chefs, healing from trauma, and the secrets of the marsh

Ana Shellem in the marsh grass near Masonboro Island
Vic Roberts
Ana Shellem in the marsh grass near Masonboro Island

"Healing is hard. But you're not alone anymore. Keep going."

It's a note that Ana Shellem wrote to herself about healing from serious childhood trauma that included sexual abuse, eating disorders, and psychological abuse and neglect. She's now a sought-after commercial fisherman supplying oysters, clams, mussels, stone crabs and the occasional whelk to superstar chefs in NC. She's also a Marine Fisheries Commissioner, appointed by Governor Roy Cooper.

A listener warning: what follows may not be appropriate for young children. There is discussion of sexual abuse, eating disorders, and other kinds of trauma. 

photos by Vic Roberts

Ana Shellem: I would sneak downstairs to my mom, because I was uncomfortable being there, of course, and they were getting a divorce. I was like six or seven and she would tell me about like, raccoons that are gonna come eat me in my sleep if I stayed down there, like – just constant fear, like there's no safe place.

So I slept in closets. I slept under my brother's bed. I slept under my bed. I slept outside. I slept in the tree fort. There was no safe place. Ever.

Ana Shellem is talking about some of her earliest trauma, in this case, allegedly perpetrated by her mother, although today, she is a sought-after fisherman. She prefers that term, she says, even though you’ll hear her describe herself as a fisherwoman a couple of times. She delivers her carefully-harvested shellfish, oysters, mussels, clams, stone crabs, to some of the best restaurants and most respected chefs in North Carolina.

Ana Shellem in the marsh near Masonboro Island
Vic Roberts
Ana Shellem in the marsh near Masonboro Island

AS: Being in the marsh is the most therapeutic experience. It requires my full presence and singular attention. The situational awareness and physical strength required allows my entire self to focus on the task at hand and not anything I was worrying about, recent or past.

Despite the dangers the marsh can present, I feel so deliberately engaged with the environment that I don't feel as vulnerable as I have felt while bartending.

RLH: She’s reading a piece she’s written about the dangers of being in the marsh alone, just off the coast of southeastern North Carolina, near Masonboro Island in the Cape Fear region.

AS: However it is possible to make mistakes in the marsh. Thunderstorms can be sporadic and sudden. The randomness of Mother Nature always keeps me on my toes and requires me to occasionally quickly re-plan my approach to the harvest.

Thunderstorms are my main threat. They can sneak up out of nowhere. I'm the tallest thing in the marsh working with metal tools. Normally I will just lay in the marsh on the wet earth and allow the storm to pass. But I have lucked out with the ghost ships that have been beached by hurricanes.

I have a wonderful romantic memory of eating my pickle snack in a mast-less hull of an abandoned sailboat and hiding within its skeleton. I was no longer the skyscraper of the marsh, but a mollusk in her shell.

AS: I love to write poetry or vignettes. All throughout my life, I've found writing as like -- kind of like an escape.

RLH: An escape. She has a lot to escape from – mostly memories at this point – but undeniable childhood, teenage, and young adult trauma. As she gathers her shellfish, the marsh teaches her how to heal.

AS: When I lived in New York, I was so poor that my entertainment was sitting on a subway train and listening to conversations and writing down the ones that I like. So I've got so many journals of strangers' conversations, which have been just so fascinating to look at later. And then, writing has always -- it's always something that has been a release, an escape, and makes me feel strong when I finish it – or not finish it.

RLH: We’re standing on the back of her boat at the marina, preparing to head out for some shellfish harvesting. This is our first meeting.

AS: My name is Ana Starr Shellem, which spells ASS for initials <laugh>, which is awesome.

I am a commissioner for the Division of Marine Fisheries for the state of North Carolina. I'm a commercial fisherwoman. I harvest clams, oysters, mussels, and stone crabs all by hand. All wild.

RLH: We’ve piled into her 14-foot Livingston – Ana describes it as a little catamaran named – what else -- the Nameless Shameless.

Vic Roberts

There are a slew of creeks we’ll have to pass through to reach her favorite place to harvest.

AS: I feel his face! … when you get them it’s the most exciting thing!

RLH: It’s a sunny late summer day, and now Ana is wrist-deep in the marshy sand, which, again, is not without danger. Stone crabs boast very strong claws.

AS: Come on, guy. I’ll be so stoked if he comes out.

Oh my god, I hope he’s in there. I feel like I feel his face… that’s a nice little oyster. And they can bury themselves so deep. But since we found this one, I’m confident we’ll find another.

He must be deep in there. We’ll let him chill out… how anticlimactic! Ugh, it drives me insane!

RLH: The fact that the stone crab could easily take off a finger makes Ana careful – but not fearful. It’s the man-made dangers that frighten her.

AS: My first year as a commercial fisherman owning Shellem Seafood, I was harvesting clams in one spot that was really deep. And I was like, I know they're gonna be back there. I can't wait. And all of a sudden I hear footsteps behind me. And that scared me, first of all. And I was like, maybe it's a family. It could be like a family with little kids that also wanna go clamming. But it was one guy with a rake and his rake was longer than mine. I'm thinking of defending myself, because I have this little three-pronged garden rake. And his was like an actual clamming rake.

Some of Ana Shellem's harvesting tools
Vic Roberts
Some of Ana Shellem's harvesting tools

So anyway, all the worst scenarios go through my mind instantly, especially because you can't really escape or run away through mud, especially the kind of mud that I experience that brings back childhood fears of quicksand. It's that mucky.

So he comes up and he starts clamming behind me. And unfortunately I was in a bathing suit, which I was like, damn. Now I don't – it's so hot. I'm just being comfortable. But now I feel like I've signed myself up for something that I don't want.

And so he's clamming next to me. And then he said, you know, he introduces himself. He is a real, real country sinewy dude. And I don't know, I think hillbillies are terrifying. White hillbilly men are really scary people for the power they think they have.

But I introduced myself back and he was clamming right in my area. And I was like, well, this just sucks because I'm not gonna, you know, I'm not gonna explain what I'm doing out here. He knows that I was here first and he's like, man, I've been wanting to come back here for a long time. I didn't expect to find no lady back here.

And I'm like, yeah. Um, yeah. And I was getting ready to move and I was grabbing my baskets and he's like, here, these clams are for you. You can take these. I just wanted to see what was back here, which totally took me aback.

Like I totally thought that he was gonna be – you know, my first impressions were not good, but he ended up being really sweet and I see him on the water still and if he has extra Spani Mac in his boat, he'll be like, “y'all want some Spani Mac?” and turns out he's super, super nice.

But that fear of being approached in isolation, because of that fear that I have, you know, I might be looking for things more than just the fish I'm after. I'm looking for what's my exit route.

What's my escape for this, thinking of the worst scenarios because we have to, because shit happens, you have to be ready. Yes, we women.

It's like when you choose what time of the day to run, you know, you have to be thinking about, like -- elevators make you uncomfortable. Just proximity to strangers because we've all, every woman I know has been assaulted or raped or abused or put in the corner, even if it's just verbally or like a creepy business tactic, like we've all been told to do less and be less and don't interrupt the male, the dude's world, which is totally what I did with fishing.

RLH: Which required more bravery, more courage than you might think. As a child and through her teenage years, she suffered horrific and repeated sexual abuse.

Her mother sent her to live in New York City when she was a young teenager.

AS: So I was on tour with Disney and that was when I was in seventh and eighth grade. And then after that, it opened up a lot of doors for me in New York City. One summer, it was before I went to New York, I was in an opera, Don Giovanni, and I don't sing opera, but I was the maid in Don Giovanni with an amazing woman… she allowed me to come stay in her place while she was on tour in Japan.

So I was technically watching her cat when I was 13. My mom signed over a legal guardianship that she'd be there, but she wasn't. So I lived by myself in New York City for the first summer when I was 13 turning 14, and then I'd come home and go to school and then come back. Every single summer till I was 17.

RLH: So, as a child, she worked as an actor and a model in New York. Alone and unprotected.

AS: I don't know how I did it now that I look back on it, because now the more I know about how dark the world is, like, why was that allowed? Why was that okay? You know, that built a lot of animosity between my mother and I for putting me in certain circumstances and situations. But, for us, for our family, I started doing professional theater when I was eight, when my parents got divorced.

RLH: To help support the family, says Ana.

AS: So my agent thought that I had a guardian there. Everybody thought that I had someone there, but I…

RLH:  Why didn't you tell them that you didn't?

AS: Because I knew it would get my mom in trouble. There was that sense of fear in everything I did then, you know, and never being good enough.


AS: My name is Ana Shellem, and I'm a fisherwoman and owner of Shellem Seafood Company. I'm the marsh girl, salt marsh queen, that oyster girl. And I'm a commissioner for Marine Fisheries.

And I'm a wife. And a puppy mama.

RLH: She’s been telling us about her childhood, its accompanying trauma, and how her new career as a fisherman – specifically shell fisherman -- is helping to heal her. Well, more accurately, the place she plies her trade – the marsh – is her healing place.

AS: I really wanted to be, like, the best daughter I could be. So my mom was really hopeful that I would be like this famous, amazing actress that could support her forever and marry rich and be rich. And so I was trying to fill in all of these puzzle pieces that she wanted. And I would say, I mean, she got the money that I was working hard for, so I was supporting my family.

I felt like I was always living to prove myself and my nickname was Little Miss Second Place. And if I didn't get an audition, she'd be like, well, what did you do wrong?

What can we fix? Do we need to dye your hair? Do we need to bleach your teeth? You're not skinny enough.

I had eating disorders for years. I'd eat cotton balls for lunch, because it makes you feel full and then have a Diet Coke and iceberg lettuce at dinner. Or like, just trying to be something that was just not working for my spirit. And like it put me in some very sketchy, dangerous situations, especially because I didn't know the city when I first got there.

RLH: She’s telling me about living and working in New York City while she was a teenager. A child -- unsupervised and unprotected. We’re standing on the back of her boat in the marina.

AS: So I would get a call from my agent about how many auditions I had that day. And then I would look at the subway map and try and map it out. And if I had an audition at one, I'd leave at like nine in the morning in case I couldn't find it. So I'd have to – and I preferred walking so I could learn the city until I got used to the subways.

RLH: Ana is telling us about her first career as a child actor and model. Today, she harvests high-quality shellfish for notable chefs and restaurants in North Carolina. You might encounter her oysters at Seabird Restaurant in downtown Wilmington. If you travel to Raleigh, you could find her shellfish in any one of Ashley Christensen’s celebrated eateries: Ana Shellem’s mussels or clams at Poole’s Diner or her oysters at Death and Taxes.

Ana Shellem with harvest
Vic Roberts
Ana Shellem with harvest

AS: So before COVID, I had 31 different restaurant accounts that I was supplying and now I don't know how I did that. I was going to Charlotte. I was going to Little Washington. I was going to Kinston. I was going to Lone Cedar in the outer banks.

And then after COVID, it's like select ones stuck and now we have a strict schedule, not strict, but we have a solidified schedule that they can plan on my harvest and I can stay on their menus. And so my name's on their menus. And so there's a story coming from the fisherman to the chef, to the table that people have really been excited about.

…Most of my chefs that I work with have been out fishing with me. I do Catch - Keith Rhodes. I do Manna downtown with Carson and Billy, Second Glass Wine Bar

RLH: The New York Times has profiled her. A German documentary team has followed her with cameras. But her consistent marsh companion is Vic Roberts – who, I have to say, has appeared on CoastLine at least twice in other capacities. Once in a discussion about the origins of English food; the other was a very personal account of being queer in the Cape Fear region.

The three of us are in the marsh together on this warm late summer day, and Ana is teaching Vic and me about oysters. And mussels.

AS: Alright, so this is debearding a mussel… Squeaky. That’s what you take to them. They range in size from two inches to six inches so there’s a lot you can do with them.

Vic Roberts: What about the sex of oysters?

AS: They can change. They’re trans, guys. They can be whatever they want to be and they change frequently – every single one of them.

RLH: Ana picks up an oyster that catches her eye.

AS: The back of that shell looks so pretty – it’s like a little mermaid tail. He’s going to be really nice. Keep growing, buddy!

VR: He could be a she…

AS: It’s dropping quick! Look how…

RLH: She’s talking about the tide. I ask her if that means it will soon be hard to get out of the marsh and back to the marina.

AS: You have to know the way. But the sandbars change every single year with every single storm and also whenever people dredge – which they have been every year – it changes it drastically.

VR: What damage does dredging do to the beds? The oyster beds?

AS: I know it changes the sandbar, so it can change the height of the oyster bed as things get shuffled around. I know that having all of that mechanic in the water doesn’t really make you want to fish near it. They had a big gasoline spill that closed everything down, so that was really sad. It even came all the way back up through the marina from Masonboro so they were right over here near the jetty.

The whole Fire Department and the Coast Guard showed up to the marina since that was where it was like shuffling to – so they thought it was an issue with a boat at the marina. But it was actually the way the tide was coming in and the way the current was leading it from the dredge boats into the marina. So that means it passed through technically open areas that you could have harvested and that did not close down the proclamations because it was a king tide week so there was enough overflow to filter.

But I still didn’t want to harvest. I didn’t want to eat that if it was only within 24 hours of being flushed with gasoline. It’s gross.

VR: So can oyster beds take being submerged permanently or is part of their natural life cycle to be unsubmerged?

AS: They can be submerged permanently. If you go up to Topsail Beach, they are always submerged. The tide just drops differently here.

I like it because it gives me a better visual about the landscape so I can harvest all the things. But I’ve been up to Stump Sound and I’ve been in a wetsuit pulling oysters up with my hands or clamming with my feet. But Masonboro is really special. I prefer-

VR: Clamming with your feet? Have you got prehensile toes?

AS: Pre-what? [laughter]

Vic Roberts after a successful harvest
Ana Shellem
Vic Roberts after a successful harvest

Vic is on her own healing journey, and while Ana dubs her the deckhand, there’s no pay involved. Vic happily comes along to learn about mollusks, shell-fishing and the secrets of the marsh.

VR: Well, I'd been following her on Instagram and as you know, I love food. I also want to know where my food comes from. Often I even want to know what it's called. So I had been following her. I was fascinated by the fact that she was hand-harvesting and I also just wanted to learn about our local marshes and areas.

So I sent her a few messages on Instagram and asked her a few questions and eventually she, after I was annoying her for quite a while, <laugh>, she said, why don't you just come out with me and I'll show you what, you know, what I do and what it's like. And I went out with her on a non-commercial day because she didn't want to take out a stranger who might be a real pain in the backside <laugh> on a day when she's gotta get thousands of mollusks.

So she took me out and showed me around and I loved it. I loved it for the same reason that she does, because it's a very spiritual place to be. And once you're out there and the tide has dropped, you've got to wait until it rises again before you can pull your boat out.

So I found it very physically joyful to be out there and very physically demanding. So I persuaded her that she ought to take me out for a proper commercial fishing day. She did. And reluctantly, but I can work, you know, working on farms and working on buses.

RLH: In her younger days, Vic drove a city bus around London and had to learn the mechanics of the bus.

VR: So I'm used to, you know, slugging through things with buckets of heavy items, mud or dirt or oil. So when we first went out together for the proper commercial harvest, it really was backbreaking and there was so much I had to learn.

AS: Just to see the way her face lights up is just – I can tell we connect with the marsh the same way and nature and enjoying physical labor ‘cause all her past jobs have included so much physical labor and being in a man's world driving the London buses. I mean, she's just like a force to be reckoned with and I find her so inspiring.

We laugh so much in the marsh and you know, we're both quite creative and a little quirky, so we'll name the things we find and give them accents and there's lots of Fiona mussels and Michelle, the fan clam. We feel like we're kids out there together.

RLH: Right now, Vic’s curriculum is focused on mussels. The kind they’re harvesting – although both women are noticing and enjoying and talking about the kind they’re developing on their bodies. But back to the shellfish…

a cluster of mussels
Vic Roberts
a cluster of mussels

VR: I can get, you know, 250 quite quickly. So I've been focusing on those. So she sent me out to find them and, those, they like to hide. So they grow up like fingers at the base of the cord grass and they sort of reveal themselves. It was very straightforward. Like you'd see this little sort of brown slickness on the top of the mud and that's how you're gonna find them. But no, it depends. It depends what mood they're in. Sometimes you might just see the tiny slit in the mud and that's just the top underneath, which is the top of the mussel.

And sometimes the mussels actually might just be sticking out and sometimes just nothing at all. So going out there and on my hands and knees in the mud, sinking sometimes quite deeply into the mud, finding these mussels is just so purposeful.

I'm thinking about nothing else. And I began to understand why Ana finds the marsh so -- such a rejuvenating place. A place where her spirituality arrives in a pool of calmness, where she can begin to recover, because you're not doing anything but focusing on the task in hand. And it's very singular.

So it's either you're looking for mussels or you're looking for clams or maybe it's stone crabs or the single most beautiful oyster you can find. And your entire attention goes to that. And the physical exertion I think just is psychologically good. I think that rejuvenates one.

RLH: Vic, who introduced me to Ana, is also very protective of her.

VR: Ana has shared with me -- as mainly as we go out on the boat, ‘cause often when we work together she'll send me off to do something and we'll be separated for maybe an hour or so. So we talk when we are back at the boat, when we're debearding mussels or when we are going in or out for the day.

And she's shared with me some of her vulnerabilities. I think because we do, we have a lot in common and we do feel like children out there. I feel like I'm playing with my, you know, seven year old best friend when we're out there and we laugh and we giggle a lot.

So we became very close quickly and she shared with me some of her vulnerable experiences in her life. And I have about the vulnerable experiences in mine. So when it came to you interviewing her for this, I really wanted her to be able to talk about how the marsh is a very private, it's very vulnerable, it's a very specific place to be, but it's one where she's been able to recover psychologically very deeply and also physically because abuse and trauma manifest itself physically. It's not just in one's head.

RLH: I ask Vic what she means about trauma manifesting physically. A physical scar from a physical trauma is the clearest example, she says. But there are other types of scars.

VR: It might just be that you hold yourself in a particular way. Like I, for example, have fairly big breasts, which I try mainly to minimize because I don't want them looked at. And that's over the years has led to my having a bit of a slumped posture because I'm forever thinking, well I'm just, my shoulders are folded forward or I keep my arms folded.

RLH: Not uncommon for women.

VR: Any psychological trauma or physical abuse can manifest itself ongoing in ways that you don't realize. And the great thing about doing physical work like Ana is doing out in the marshes, there's no option for you to be folded over, not when you're carrying two thirty-five-pound buckets of mollusks through mud and sinking up to your thighs.

You have to be powerful, strong, upright, and you have to use all of your body. So that's, I think, is a way that it addresses physical injury and the repetition of that injury that you might have had as a five year old or a 15 year old or a 10 year old.

So, but as to feeling protective over Ana, she speaks so freely about her childhood and youthful traumas and her young adulthood traumas because it's a healthy thing to do.

RLH: But once a story or an interview is published, especially in the 21st century, it’s forever.

VR: It really is. I will say that not having social media when I grew up is a great thing because lord knows what would be echoed right now and lord knows what traumas would be repeated because of that.

So, you know, and that's another great thing about being out in the marsh is only the marsh hears what's being said. And it stays there.

RLH: For Ana, living unsupervised in New York City as a child was traumatic – the loneliness, the constant fear, the abuse by adults, the constant criticism from her mother.

AS: I was doing great. I had like five different agents at one point. I was with Ford and About Face Models and was successful with it. Like I was there for a reason, but it was just, I was absolutely miserable because not ever feeling good enough - ever - was awful and being alone all the time was awful because it feels unsafe to, like, even go out to dinner when you're 13 and 14.

RLH: Did you have a credit card from your mom?

AS: No, I paid for everything. [The] tour helped me get started and then I booked jobs to pay for myself. And then when I was at home during the school year, I worked at a gym and I worked at a restaurant and just work, work, work, work, work.

RLH: Who coined the nickname Little Miss Second Place?

AS: My Mom.

Yeah. She and I have had to try to work through what she's done to me. So I'm a lot stronger now and feel sympathy for her because for someone to do that [they] must have been through a lot of trauma themselves. But our relationship was very “mommie dearest” for a while, you know?

When I didn't want to be an actress anymore, she got so mad at me. She was infuriated. She used to do things like read my journal – a lot – and when I was there before I moved to North Carolina, I had written this piece about me finally being happy and perhaps she might be jealous of that.

And I woke up one morning with her slamming every cupboard and just from upstairs, I could hear her exasperation and then she comes stomping upstairs.

And then I look over, I see that my journal's out. And she was like, uh, you think I'm jealous of you. I'm not jealous of you. I'd rather slit my wrists than be you.

And those were common things to hear. I've always been very used to negativity about my decisions, my body image.

So that's why it feels really good to own my own business now and to make my own choices and to live on a boat and do things that make me very, very happy.

Oh, obviously the reason why I was working so much was when my parents got divorced, my dad never paid child support.

RLH: The more I learn about the specific forms of her childhood trauma and its seemingly infinite layers, the harder it is to believe she’s even alive today – much less running a niche seafood business for exceptional chefs in North Carolina.

While the marsh offers her relief, she also finds solace in writing, painting, and sketching.

AS: Like my dreams are horribly intense and they also inspire me to write because it's just, I only have nightmares, but I try to find the good in them I think, or like what they're trying to tell me and what my subconscious is trying to tell me.

So I'll write them down initially and then I'll go back and think on it and write down colors, which then turns into, like, an art piece. I love to paint. I love to use acrylics or watercolors. So, just mediums that give me solid relief, really, you know, writing, painting.

RLH: Building her muscles as she fishes in the marsh is affirmation of more than simply her physical strength.

Developing muscles is countering her long-held ideal of extreme thinness – required for a working model in New York – which is, of course, another form of harm from which she’s recovering.

In fact, she tells me, she is just now remembering a moment when one of her abusers tells her if she stays this size forever, she will be the most beautiful woman in the world.

AS: And I was like 108 pounds and five-nine and nothing but bones. And my mom was telling me the same thing. You know? Like, you're only pretty if you do that, if you look like that. And when my mom found out that I was bulimic, it was like a very quick conversation.

And then it's like, oh, she's fine. She's doing it for her craft. It's what she has to do. It's part of, it's part of being an actress and she needs to do that because she's going to be a celebrity. She's going to be famous.

RLH: When you think about that now, what does it mean to you that people wanted you that skinny?

AS: It makes me think that they want me to be incapable of doing anything for myself, other than being something pretty to look at. And now that I'm a fisherman and have muscles and if I don't eat, I regret it. When I'm out working, I feel lightheaded. I need muscles to work. I need muscles to live.

My husband loves my muscles. <laugh>

RLH: You’re listening to CoastLine. After this short break, more with fisherman and Marine Fisheries Commissioner Ana Starr Shellem.


My husband loves my muscles. <laugh>

RLH: You’re listening to CoastLine. I’m RLH. Ana Starr Shellem, owner of Shellem Seafood – and, yes, that’s her real name – is exploring what it means to heal from multiple types of childhood trauma – and why her growing physical strength seems to parallel her development of psychological strength.

I grew up initially in the south and in the Midwest and from a woman that is religious and being the weaker of a husband and wife team is an appeal to men.

AS: So it was just teaching me to appeal to men.

And now I'm like, <laugh> now I appeal to women and I love that.

I'm like, yes, let's unite! <laugh> it feels so good to be strong.

And it feels so good to like – that also developed my, you know, relationship with eating, restricting myself and being anorexic and bulimic for so long. And going to the dentist and them saying like, you've got a lot of wear and tear behind your front teeth. And I'm like, oh, that's my fault. That's from the stomach acid.

And it just, it makes me so mad that I would be excited in the past. Like vomiting felt good if I was super skinny and like, the hair on my arms got thicker. I was like, oh, I'm doing it right. I need to be as skinny as possible.

All of these like really tormented, torturous beliefs that I had been encouraged to develop and maintain now seem just insane to me.

RLH: She’s finding new joy in just, well, eating.

Ana Shellem grilling
Vic Roberts
Ana Shellem grilling

After leaving the world of acting and modeling in New York, she hadn’t yet discovered her love of shell-fishing, and so she went to work in the restaurant business.

The vulnerability she felt working behind the bar, especially, became intolerable.

AS: You feel like a caged animal and you can't escape. And I've always worked in fine dining for the majority of my career, and people or men that come in with money and think they can do anything or say anything or threaten you or grope you or wait in their car next to yours for, to follow you home when you leave.

RLH: Ana’s husband saw what was happening to her.

AS: He was like, you have to get out of this. You're deteriorating again. And I will not let it happen. So he said, what do you, what would you like to do? What makes you happy? And I'm like, I just, I want to be fishing. I want to be in the marsh. I want to be outdoors. I want to supply restaurants still, but you know, be in total control over it.

RLH: Her husband taught her how to fish.

AS: The more that I am in the fishing world, the more I feel like that male gaze doesn't matter.

RLH: She recently traveled back to New York – not for any audition – but as an expert on North Carolina shellfish.

AS: It was like the first time I was presenting in New York City and people loved it – rather than any time I had presented myself in auditions, it's just constant criticism and like, you leave not wanting to go eat.

But this time I felt much more powerful.

RLH: That trip was affirming for her, but some nights she did return to her hotel room and collapse on her bed in tears. The healing process comes in fits and starts, and Ana remembers things suddenly sometimes – experiences so traumatic they’ve been repressed.

As her healing continues, as she gets stronger and more able to handle it, some of the deeper, more repressed memories come to the surface.

Again, we’re deliberately omitting details of the abuse she suffered at the hands of adults.

But as she was going through this, writing in her journal as a teenager was one of the ways she coped. She recalls an entry she wrote at fifteen while living alone in New York and getting her hair done professionally for the first time.

AS: I was so excited, and this guy named Alberto was the guy cutting my hair, which was so sweet because he's like, what are you doing here alone? And he was just the sweetest gay man. I loved it. It was very comforting. But we were, I was for some reason able to, like, open up a little bit with him about, depression and whatnot.

So I wrote -- this is just a little journal entry:

Alberto told me he has several friends when they moved to New York City and lived alone that needed professional help within six to eight months. Therapy. Unless you're here doing it, no one understands how hard it is and how lonely it is.

People are everywhere, but you don't know anyone. You work so much that there's no time to meet people or make friends. Lots of people are just temporaries, visiting or vacationing.

It's a strange thing how fast the city appears to be going. How simple, beautiful and easy the people here make success look. Really, this city holds you in static, in closets and the beautiful success you see walking the streets is often an ego-inflated knockoff. Everyone walks with their heads down.

Reality. You don't have to be here to be someone. This city is not your ticket to become someone. There are too many no ones in a crowd that's easy to fit into, silhouetted by their uniform, their arms grow strong, their spirits grow weak and routine never stops. The city never does. But that's ‘cause we're all just waiting, waiting in a fast city, going nowhere, but down.

The place you're in is not the picture. Your happy heart and mind will be picture perfect. Leave the city if you need to and be someone.

That was 15 little Ana. I wrote that after my, I got a water and I sat at a bar and ate the peanuts and wrote that, which was such a lonely moment.

But I love it because like, even something in me then was like, I do not need to be here.

Even though that was what my family's vision of success was for me with being a successful model and actress, it was never fulfilling like the marsh has become and fishing has become, and it's, it's, it's, I'm glad I left. Very glad.

RLH: As the marsh queen, she’s learned how to find its treasures. In fact, she’s so careful and observant, it’s clear why picky chefs buy from her and why they sometimes join her on a fishing expedition to observe her process.

The industry is regulated, and even before Governor Roy Cooper appointed her as a commissioner of Marine Fisheries, the primary regulatory body for commercial fishermen in North Carolina, she had to understand the stringent rules.

AS: It starts with becoming a fish dealer on top of having your commercial fishing license. And that requires hazop training, which is hazard analysis, critical control points for the safety of the shellfish. And legal refrigeration, which has to be mobile in my case. And then I have refrigeration on the boat I live on as well. So there's a lot of paperwork involved.

And when I am out in the marsh, I have to document the exact time I harvest everything. So everything has a tag, whether it's in a bucket or a bag. I often, unless it's an order of mussels going to Charlotte or something, I'll debeard all the mussels and I sell everything by the hundred count.

Ana Shellem bagging her harvest.
Vic Roberts
Ana Shellem bagging her harvest.

Unless -- the clams are bigger, sometimes they'll be a 75 count bag.

But I brought my little harvest tag, which talks about, you know, consumer advisory and we have to have the date, the harvest area and the time we collected it. We have a trip ticket program in North Carolina that tracks everything brought in by every fisherman.

So I submit that every month and I love to do that.

They also let you write about the things you've seen in the marsh that are either good or bad. I've seen, you know, when I see a predominant amount of dead crabs, blue crabs, I'll report that. Lately I've been seeing a lot of dead cannonball jellyfish, like a lot. And so I'm going to write about that when I submit it.

RLH: What are cannonball jellyfish?

AS: They're, like, super round. They have this really pretty skirt that flows around the base that's like maroon and it leads up. I guess I wish I had the scientific information for all of these things, but I've always just been left to my own descriptions.

You can pick them up from the top and they won't sting you and you can throw them at your friends because they really don't hurt you that much at all. <laugh>.

They're really cute. They look like a little cartoon, and so I don't, I don't know what's making them die right now, but I'll write about that.

And then the good things, like when I see an abundance of wild scallops, which I can't legally harvest in my area right now because of their depletion. And so when I see them I get so excited and I'll take a picture and I'll even, like, print pictures out and send them to DMF.

But those scallops too, in observing them, they kind of get caught in the edges of the marsh beds. Especially when, like, I normally see them in February and March and April. They hide under this really pretty algae that comes through that gives oysters those blue gills. I know what to look for – their ridges when they're hiding properly. But if I see one that the tide has flipped over and its white belly is visible, I'll flip them over to keep them safe. And that's all I'll touch them for just cuz I don't want to damage them at all. But they've got beautiful blue eyes and they make the sweetest sounds. They're so pretty.

RLH: I can’t help but wonder about other places offering local oysters for a lot less money than you might shell out – sorry – had to do it at least once – at a higher-end restaurant.

If people are getting cheaper oysters by the bushel at a fish shack sort of place, is it safe? What does it mean about the shellfish from other fishermen who aren’t as careful or picky as Ana?

AS: You can go to Dockside and get all you can eat oysters in town. And I know those kind of environments are so fun, especially, you know, you can practically be barefoot while you're eating there and you know, on the water and it's so southern and sweet.

But there's a difference between the way I harvest and the way a normal commercial fisherman would. They go out and get as much as they can, which is five bushels every day and drop it off at a fish market and hope that it sells. Doesn't really matter - just to make the money.

Ana Shellem with her harvest.
Vic Roberts
Ana Shellem with her harvest.

And I go out and make sure that I'm picking out very specific, beautiful, really old, older oysters that have the right cup size because that's how you'll know what that meat texture's going to be like. At the tops of the oyster beds, they kind of grow together and kind of like feathers.

So at those all you can eat places or even or the Calabash place you're talking about, they might have been clusters or less or just eating in volume rather than sitting there and enjoying the merroir of the oyster.

RLH: So you're talking about a difference then between just the quality, like you are harvesting oysters for premier restaurants and premier food providers.

AS: Right. There's a lot of great fishermen that are bringing in tons of oysters every day. But yeah, they're just looking for different things and they have a different destination.

And like the oysters at Dockside are great.

My friend Megan and Drew harvest those and you know, there's a lot of people in our town that love Stump Sound oysters and that are going to be the big meaty rocks, like really big.

And unless my chefs want to bake them on the half shell, like Ashley Christensen does at Poole’s or at Death and Taxes, I'll bring them, you know, I would bring them larger ones for that preparation.

But the majority of my chefs do raw or Dean does amazing, amazing stuffed ones too. But he still likes to keep 'em small because they kind of, their shapes somewhat match the shapes of the farm oysters that are sprawled out and they're just, he wants to keep that. I would imagine he wants to keep the meat texture similar throughout the whole mix up of the farmed and the wilds.

RLH: She’s talking about Dean Neff of Seabird Restaurant in downtown Wilmington.

Ana Shellem of Shellem Seafood and Dean Neff of Seabird Restaurant
Vic Roberts
Ana Shellem of Shellem Seafood and Dean Neff of Seabird Restaurant

The way fisherman Ana Shellem takes care of what she calls “the resource” – the oyster beds, the scallops in precarious positions, the marsh itself, her care in choosing how, when, and what to harvest, makes me wonder if part of her sensitivity to and sense of the marsh arises from her childhood trauma.

RLH: You told me earlier that you would sometimes eat cotton balls to make yourself feel full.

ANA: Yeah.

RLH: And you've gotten to a place where you love this, the feel of your body when it's strong. And you talk about loving food and eating oysters a lot.

AS: Yes.

RLH: And so you've come to this new place, but if you had a daughter or if you could go back and re-parent yourself, how would you raise a daughter?

Especially given all of the images that are out of control of parents, like the social media photoshopped images that aren't even real, the media images that persist even in the 21st century of the female form implying that it should be a certain way.

Even when parents aren't teaching that, kids are still getting that message, especially little girls.

AS: Yes.

RLH: So how would you hold space for a little girl to learn to love her body and enjoy food and how would you teach her to think about her body and food?

AS: That's a great question and it's probably why I'm not having kids. ‘Cause it's terrifying to think about all that impact that social media and the sexualizing of young girls – it's repulsive.

But I would definitely not speak negatively about myself, especially my body in front of her. I'd write positive things on her mirror that would be love notes that she'd see every day. And ‘cause I had to do that while I was healing and that was very helpful.

Even when she'd be brushing her teeth, I would do that.

RLH: What kinds of things would you say on the mirror?

AS: Oh, I would say it's okay to eat. You have to eat in order to live, you're beautiful or just don't speak negatively of yourself or, right now I've got one, I've got a picture of me when I was a little girl, and it says, healing is hard, but you're not alone anymore. Keep going.

And then I see that, you know, every day when I get out of the shower, and even if I'm not intentionally reading it, just subconsciously seeing those, I would hide love notes like that, that all over the place for my little girl if I had one.

I would cook with her and teach her about nutrition, that it's okay to enjoy things and whether it's gorging out sometimes, but don't, you know, don't hurt yourself by getting rid of it in the wrong way like I used to do.

I would not encourage modeling for the dangerous situations you get put into. And also just what I experienced with always never being good enough and never thin enough or too tall all of a sudden. Or maybe you should dye your hair red because red hair's in right now and it's just because you're too all-American- looking. Or we need you to lose 10 pounds. And telling a kid to lose 10 pounds is awful. It's inevitable any child is going to be told things that are awful and be in scary situations.

But I definitely would not send my child anywhere alone.

RLH: We know Ana Shellem considers the marsh a major factor in her healing. Perhaps she’s right and this sentient environment is leading her out of her dark childhood. But we can’t really know that.

We can, though, watch her face her trauma, hear her speak it out loud.

Grow stronger.


AS: Like, you have to know the waters back here to enjoy them or work in them or fish in them – any kind of fishing.

You can hear the ocean. We’re super close to the ocean. It’s just over those dunes.

That means when those king tides come in, this is nothing but salt marsh. The salinity in these waters are super, super high. I haven’t been out here just to listen in a long time. It feels so nice.

So she listens.

Soon she will eat.

And play.

And laugh.

AS: [laughs] Now I just sing and dance in the marsh. No more acting. It's all reality, which makes me so much happier.

Ana Shellem with her boat near the marsh.
Vic Roberts
Ana Shellem with her boat near the marsh.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.