Morehead City — Representatives from federal, state and nonprofit organizations announced Thursday the official beginning of an initiative to promote shellfish aquaculture and shellfish restoration in North Carolina.
The major partners of the N.C. Shellfish Initiative – the N.C. Coastal Federation, N.C. Sea Grant, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — made the announcement Thursday at an event hosted by N.C. State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology.
About 43 people – many of them members of the partner organizations – attended the announcement of the initiative, modeled after the National Shellfish Initiative, to increase the shellfish population in North Carolina’s waters. A shellfish mariculture demonstration site was also set up in Bogue Sound outside of the CMAST building for attendees to see.
NCCF coastal scientist Dr. Erin Fleckenstein said it was wonderful to see so many people turn out for the announcement.
“We’ve worked very hard, all the partners, to get to this point,” she said.
Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan said the event was a “historic celebration.”
“Even as a lifelong North Carolinian, I had no idea how much time I’d be spending on fish,” Mr. Regan said. “It’s an integral part of our economy and heritage. It’s hard to imagine North Carolina without the shellfish industry. We need the (shellfish population) numbers to help this industry flourish.”
Division of Marine Fisheries Director Steve Murphey said his division has a long tradition of supporting shellfish mariculture. The division is the state agency responsible for issuing permits for shellfish growing leases.
“It’s been supersized of late,” Mr. Murphey said, referring to the division’s involvement with shellfish aquaculture, “thanks to the support and funding from the state General Assembly. Oysters are one of the unique organisms that serve as both habitat and a resource.”
Mr. Murphey said in recent years the division has begun receiving 70-80 lease applications per year.
“The potential (for shellfish aquaculture) is huge,” he said. “We’re feeling some growing pains. The General Assembly is working to address some of the public trust use and viewshed issues. We look forward to working with our partners to increase this collaboration.”
Carteret County isn’t unfamiliar with these growing pains. Town officials in both Atlantic Beach and Pine Knoll Shores have expressed concerns about the user conflicts that may result from shellfish leases located in public trust waters used frequently by recreational boaters and others.
In response to questions from News-Times staff, Mr. Regan said there are a number of conversations being held by state officials with stakeholders to address these issues.
“The goal is that there’s a great opportunity (with shellfish aquaculture), but not all the rules are written,” he said. “We want to write regulations that provide flexibility while also providing protection.”
N.C. Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico (Craven, Carteret), also attended the announcement. The senator said in an interview with the News-Times after the formal presentations that he’s glad state officials have “taken a step back” to look at the concerns being raised about shellfish lease siting.
“You’ll never alleviate all the concerns, but you can alleviate a lot of them,” he said. “To me the key is to get everyone to the table to come up with a plan everyone can work with going forward. We’re going to give the DMF the time it needs to identify the areas (best for leases).”
Sen. Sanderson said he thinks they’ll need to address the division’s needs during the next General Assembly appropriation cycle.
“We need to get them the manpower they need,” he said, “and I think it will be much easier this time around.”
In the spirit of the initiative, NOAA is also lending a hand with the effort to improve lease siting. NOAA Fisheries biologist Dr. Ken Riley said the administration is doing a study on boating and other water uses in Bogue Sound. The study results will be provided to state officials in order to help create lease siting regulations and map water uses.
“We’re meeting with Atlantic Beach and Pine Knoll Shores (officials) to assure them if they can hold on until the end of the study, it will help with lease siting,” Dr. Riley said.
This study is the kind of project the N.C. Shellfish Initiative is made to support. Another is the shellfish aquaculture demonstration facility, recently installed at CMAST with the help of state funding.
N.C. Sea Grant marine aquaculture specialist Dr. Chuck Weirich, who spearheaded the creation of the facility, said there’s a lot of interest in shellfish aquaculture.
“We’re working with hard clams and other species,” he said, meaning the sort of aquaculture models the new facility demonstrates. “The second part of the facility is providing hands-on training.”
Carteret Community College, right next door to the center, was also involved in the facility’s creation. Director David Cerino said their program is “training the next generation of shellfish growers.”
CMAST is also starting its own shellfish-focused program. Director Dr. David Eggleston said with both state and N.C. State University funding, they’ll soon begin a shellfish pathology program.
According to information Dr. Eggleston provided the News-Times, pathology programs are “vital to the shellfish farming industries of a number of states along the east coast.” The program at CMAST will provide disease diagnostic services, health certification of shellfish seed and disease research.
During the formal presentations, Dr. Eggleston said CMAST is “pretty unique in that we have students and faculty from three universities and five departments.”
“When we put these disciplines all under one roof, it allows for what we call ‘creative collisions,’” he said.
At least one shellfish-related project in Carteret County is directly supporting restoration work outside the county. Sandbar Oyster Company owner David “Clammerhead” Cesna was present at the event. He said they’re currently growing oysters for oyster restoration efforts in Onslow County.
Sen. Sanderson said he was “in awe of the representation” at Thursday’s announcement.
“This (initiative) is such a win-win for everybody,” he said. “For the last several years the North Carolina legislature has recognized the value of investing in and rebuilding the shellfish industry. We’ve increased investment in cultch planting along the coast. As the industry grows we’ll continue to fund those agencies to make the process faster and more efficient for those who want to get into the oyster business.”
Sen. Sanderson said the announcement of the initiative was “another sign these investments are paying off.”
“I promise my colleagues in the House and Senate will continue to do everything we can to support you to help make the oyster industry prosper in our state,” he said.
Dr. Riley said coastal aquaculture is an industry that’s growing across the nation, and of the various types of aquaculture, shellfish is one of the fastest growing.
“We want to make sure aquaculture and restoration activities are developed in ways that provide the most economic return, as well as that they’re done with the most environmentally responsible methods,” he said. “The National Shellfish Initiative serves to improve management of shellfish aquaculture and support smart planning and permitting and streamlining efficient permitting of shellfish leases. We have great things ahead of us, and we (NOAA) look forward to being strong partners along the way.”
NCCF Executive Director Todd Miller said shellfish have great potential to help with the future of the state coast.
“They are great indications of our coastal environment’s health,” he said, “and provide a lot of economic opportunities.”
Mr. Regan said this initiative is the first of it’s kind in the states of the southeast region of the U.S. He said that among other things, it will enable state officials to compete for federal funding for shellfish restoration projects.
“Investing in mariculture is important to our environment and economy,” he said. “At the DEQ, we’re eager to join the national dialogue about restoring shellfish populations. North Carolina will be a leader in this field, with your help.”
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.