Senators file bill to expand aquaculture

The bill sponsors seek to ease Army Corps of Engineers rules they say unfairly limit shellfish cultivation, stating reforms could grow economy and protect the environment

Eamon Queeney | The North State Journal
The North Carolina Senate Chamber of the Legislative Building in Raleigh

RALEIGH — Two lawmakers from coastal North Carolina filed a bill Monday to encourage the Wilmington District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allow shellfish cultivation and aquaculture activities in North Carolina waters containing submerged aquatic vegetation.Sens. Norman Sanderson (R-Carteret) and Bill Cook (R-Beaufort) described Senate Bill 410 as an economic development driver that is also good for the environment.”With our acres of pristine waters and a large and growing interest in cultivated oysters, the potential for the industry in the state is huge,” said Sanderson and Cook in a press release. “Our goal is for North Carolina to become the ‘Napa Valley’ of oysters. A single adult oyster can filter and clean up to 50 gallons of water a day — thus our waters will be cleaner and our economy will grow.”North Carolina’s estuaries are well-known for being some of the most productive in the world. We have the second largest estuary system in the United States and the largest contained in one state. Amending this federal rule has tremendous potential to create new jobs with the shellfish and aquaculture industry.”The federal rule in question aims to protect submerged aquatic vegetation, but the bill sponsors contend it is too restrictive.”This policy is more stringent than policies used in other coastal states, including the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said the senators in a statement. “Shellfish lease applications in North Carolina have been routinely denied by the Division of Marine Fisheries due to the presence of any submerged aquatic vegetation. Virginia falls under the Norfolk District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and in that state, after the individual lease holder has a preconstruction notification, their lease can have a certain amount of submerged aquatic vegetation under certain conditions.”According to data compiled by the Fiscal Research Division of the General Assembly, as of September 2015, there were 292 shellfish leases in North Carolina, covering 1,931 acres. Out of those leases, 256 are bottom leases covering 1,820 acres, and 36 have water column leases covering 111 acres.In comparison, Virginia has 5,400 leases covering 122,000 acres. Sanderson and Cook contend that this expanding program is credited with Virginia’s rapid increase in oyster landings.”Growing shellfish is good for our coastal economy and environment, and the proposed changes will help more people go into that business,” Todd Miller, executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, said in support of the joint resolution.Harvesting resources from the sea and coastal estuaries has been a staple of Eastern North Carolina’s economy and heritage since colonial times — from a small whaling industry spearheaded by residents of “Diamond City” on Shackleford Banks in the 1800s, to the “World Famous” oysters of Carteret County’s Calico Creek, to the commercial and recreational fishing industries that still define many coastal North Carolina communities today.Oysters have been a key part of North Carolina’s aqua-economy for more than 100 years. So much so, in fact, that North Carolina declared “war” in 1891 on fisherman from Maryland and Virginia that came south to exploit the Old North State’s rich oyster beds.The out-of-state fisherman from the Chesapeake Bay area had been forced out by the governor of Maryland in 1888 as dredges came dangerously close to depleting the area’s oyster beds with indiscriminate harvesting practices. As a result, those fisherman headed south that same year, and according to the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, more than half a dozen “pirate” vessels from Virginia were reported in Hyde County.In 1890, fisherman from Carteret, Pamlico and Hyde counties tried running the pirates off, but to no avail. By January 1891, more than 150 Maryland dredgers and well-armed Virginia pirates had taken control of all oyster beds in Dare and Hyde counties. Then-governor of North Carolina Daniel Fowle ushered legislation through the General Assembly to prevent North Carolina oysters from being shipped to markets out of state. To enforce the measure, the governor dispatched boats manned by the National Guard to patrol North Carolina waters and drive off or arrest the oyster pirates. The show of force worked and North Carolina fisherman soon regained access to the state’s oyster beds.These days many coastal resource businesses are turning to aquaculture to augment production and mitigate overfishing. According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture, more than 200 North Carolina families earn at least a part of their living through aquaculture, and the industry is worth nearly $25 million to the state’s economy in farm sales alone.Oysters are a significant part of that industry, with nearly a fifth of the total oyster harvest coming from aquaculture sea bottom leases.