Sens. Cook, Sanderson File Resolution for Revisions to Federal Shellfish Regs
Raleigh, N.C. - Recognizing the commercial and ecological values of the oysters, Senator Bill Cook (R-District 1) and Senator Norman W. Sanderson (R-District 2) filed Senate Joint Resolution 205 encouraging 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 (SAV).
Presently, the Corps of Engineers overprotects North Carolina’s submerged aquatic vegetation. This policy is more stringent than policies used in other coastal states, including the Commonwealth of Virginia. 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 pre-construction notification, their lease can have a certain amount of submerged aquatic vegetation under certain conditions.
As of September 2015, there were 292 shellfish leases in North Carolina, covering 1,931 acres. Out of 292 total 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, and this expanding program is credited to the state’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," said Todd Miller, Executive Director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation.
In 2015 and 2016, responding to feedback from various organizations and those who work in the industry, the N.C. General Assembly enacted several regulatory provisions as well as appropriations to enhance the state’s ability to plant cultch, to fund sanctuary development and to expand North Carolina’s oyster industry:
• Allowing growers to mark the perimeter of their leases with GPS devices and provide information that conforms to standards prescribed by the secretary concerning accuracy;
• Extending lease contracts from five to ten years before a renewal application is necessary. Thus, cut the cost for bottom leases, water column leases, and the rate for initial leases in half;
• Authorize bottom lease-holders to also place gear up to 18 inches off bottom without requiring a water column lease;
• Permit shellfish lease holders, who engage in mechanical harvest operations, to employ people without a commercial fishing license. Instead the license is held by the shellfish grower and the employees work under that license;
• Requested a study to explore opening shellfish cultivation and leasing opportunities in currently prohibited areas of Core Sound;
• Section 11 of the 2015 Farm Act (S.L. 2015-263) allows the Marine Fisheries Commission to issue shellfish cultivation leases in areas containing SAV to the extent allowed by federal law;
• Authorize nonprofits whose primary mission is the conservation of natural resources, to apply for and secure Division of Marine Fisheries scientific or educational activity permits that were previously only granted to scientific and educational institutions;
• Established a stakeholder working group to study and advance efforts to ecologically restore the resource and achieve economic stability of the shellfish aquaculture industry;
• Appropriated $300,000 of additional funds to bolster the division’s cultch planting program;
• Allocated additional funds of $450,000 to develop North Carolina specific broodstock oysters for the oyster aquaculture industry with the University of North Carolina Wilmington;
• Increased appropriations by $1,030,000 to support a network of oyster sanctuaries;
• Revised net appropriation for oyster larvae (spat) in FY 2016-17 to $1,200,000;
• Appropriated $149,000 for two positions in the Division of Marine Fisheries to promote shellfish production and oyster shell recycling.
“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,” said Cook and Sanderson. “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. 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.”