MOREHEAD CITY — While state legislators continue to hash out shellfish leasing regulations, new leases have been on hiatus from Bogue Sound south.
The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission directed the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries in February to refrain from issuing new shellfish leases in state waters from Bogue Sound south after concerns were raised about user conflicts in public trust waters.
This is within the division’s authority. Division Public Information Officer Patricia Smith said that according to state statutes, once a public hearing has been held on a shellfish lease application, there’s no time limit on how long the division director may wait before approving a lease, it only says a decision should be made in “a reasonable time.”
To address concerns about leases, mostly coming from coastal town officials, legislators in the N.C. General Assembly have been working on amendments to House Bill 361, the Support Shellfish Industry bill. They established a conference committee – a legislative committee created to eliminate differences between two similar bills – and while the Senate adopted the committee’s report on the shellfishing bill June 15, the House has re-referred the bill to its Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House.
Subsequently, the General Assembly ended their legislative session June 29, without acting on the bill. They won’t convene again until November.
Among the municipalities concerned about shellfish leases is Atlantic Beach.
In January 2017, the council discussed at its planning retreat a then-proposed lease of 14.17 acres of water bottom and water column in Bogue Sound.
This lease, which was in the vicinity of the Triple S Marina, was eventually approved, but the council joined a local homeowners’ association in its appeal of the lease approval. However, a state administrative law judge ruled in October 2017 the council had no standing, and it was cut from the appeal. The judge eventually ruled in favor of the lease holder.
The council has said during public meetings that it’s concerned about the way shellfish leases are being sited in public trust waters. Councilmen said leases located in waters frequently used by recreational boaters, fishermen and others could lead to problems like boats colliding with hanging baskets or submerged structures used to grow shellfish.
Ms. Smith said since the commission made its request to delay lease approval, the division hasn’t approved any new leases from Bogue Sound south, but it has approved leases in other areas.
“In February the Marine Fisheries Commission asked the Division of Marine Fisheries to temporarily stop issuing shellfish leases and accepting shellfish lease applications for waters from Bogue Sound south until the division can fully assess safety concerns and other regulatory needs,” Ms. Smith said. “Division Director Steve Murphey told the commission he would seek legal counsel to see if the division had authority for these actions.”
At the commission’s May meeting, Mr. Murphey reported that while the division couldn’t refuse shellfish lease applications, he would not approve further leases in the waters in question while the General Assembly was in session, due to possible changes in the law.
First created March 16, 2017, H361 was created to provide additional support for the state’s shellfish industry by reforming and modernizing the statutes governing shellfish and aquaculture bottomland leasing.
The bill’s latest edition includes language to address concerns about lease siting, including a moratorium on new shellfish leases in both New Hanover County and Bogue Sound until Wednesday, July 1, 2020. During this time, the Division of Marine Fisheries will establish shellfish aquaculture enterprise areas, areas designated and permitted by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and subdivided into parcels made available for shellfish aquaculture leasing.
Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret (Jones), said this bill has become “too controversial to get rushed through.”
“We have commercial and recreational fishermen both against the bill,” she said. “I had modified the bill to put a moratorium on Bogue Banks until enterprise zones are established to reduce or eliminate the conflicts with all those who use public trust waters.”
Despite being the one to amend the bill, Rep. McElraft said she’s reluctantly withdrawn her support.
“I still have so many folks that didn’t feel like their views and concerns with the bill were heard,” she said recently. “I feel like we need to have public hearings and input in this bill before it gets any further in the legislative process.”
Rep. McElraft said she’s “a true believer that our oyster industry needs a boost, but there are things in the bill that so many are still against.”
“Our smaller oyster farmers are expressing concern and (are) upset that they had no input in this bill,” she said. “We can address the items in this bill in the interim (between sessions) during stakeholder meetings.”
N.C. Fisheries Association President and commercial fisherman Glenn Skinner seems to agree with Rep. McElraft.
“This issue affects everybody,” Mr. Skinner said. “Recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen, boaters. We think this issue needs to be vetted and receive stakeholder input before they make any decisions.”
According to the Division of Marine Fisheries, in 2017, Carteret County landed 1,022,196 hard clams from shellfish leases, or 16,208 pounds. It also saw 33,713 bushels of oysters landed from leases, or 178,339 pounds of oysters.
As of Monday, there are 78 shellfishing leases in Carteret County, covering a total of 291.4 acres. Most of these are located in Newport River and Core Sound.
Throughout the state there are 249 existing shellfishing leases, covering a total of 1,699.1 acres.
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.