Carteret County growers contribute to shellfish aquaculture boom in North Carolina

Aquaculture-raised clams sit in a pile at Hooper Family Seafood recently. Shellfish aquaculture sites in Carteret County are contributing to a boom in the industry. (Mark Hooper photo)

MOREHEAD CITY — Shellfish aquaculture is growing by leaps and bounds along the North Carolina coast, and a significant portion of it is in Carteret County.

Aquaculture, the practice of breeding, rearing and harvesting animals and plants in water environments, can include harvesting shellfish like clams and oysters. In North Carolina, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, the state agency responsible for managing fisheries in state and coastal waters, issues leases for shellfish aquaculture and in recent years has seen massive growth in the shellfish aquaculture industry.

DMF public information officer Patricia Smith said in recent years, the number of applications for shellfish leases has “increased exponentially.”

The DMF received 22 such applications from 2005-11, but from 2012-19, the division received 350 applications.

“This is an increase from 2011 (two lease applications) to 2019 (106 lease applications) of 5,200%,” Ms. Smith said in an email. “There was a slight decrease in the number of applications in 2020 (58 applications), thought to be due to COVID-19.”

As of Wednesday, North Carolina has 426 shellfish leases and franchises, totaling 2,197.84 acres. Of these, Carteret County contains 127, which is 29.81% of all leases in the state. Most of Carteret County’s leases are located in Newport River.

Shellfish aquaculture contributes a growing portion of the shellfish sold on the commercial seafood market in North Carolina. Ms. Smith said commercial oyster landings from privately leased shellfish bottoms have been increasing annually, in comparison to the variable landings from public trust bottoms.

“Over the past five years, an increasing trend in landings from production on private bottoms, coupled with decreasing landings from public bottoms, has lead to landed bushels from private culture exceeding public landings every year since 2017,” she noted.  

Aquaculture isn’t without its issues for state officials, however. One of the most recent is user conflicts. Local government officials and others have voiced concerns about shellfish aquaculture operations creating boating navigation hazards in and near public trust waters, as well as affecting the view when leases are sited near towns.

In 2019, state legislators passed an act which directs the DMF to study user conflicts and shellfish lease moratoriums, as well as establish shellfish aquaculture enterprise areas, where leases can’t be transferred and once they expire, the bottom and/or water column reverts back to the state.

“The division has already begun to implement recommendations from the user conflict study,” Ms. Smith said, “including rule amendments, developing a cumulative impact implementation plan, developing a shellfish aquaculture training program and an interstate aquaculture network. The division is also working to develop a shellfish aquaculture storm management plan.”

Aquaculture in Carteret County

Down East, one commercial fisherman was an early adopter, expanding his operation into shellfish aquaculture in the mid 1980s. Hooper Family Seafood owner and operator Mark Hooper said last week he and his wife, Penny, began growing clams in 1985, after they moved from Beaufort to Smyrna in 1981, expanding their operation into oyster aquaculture in the early 1990s.

“My wife and I concentrated on soft-shell crabs when we moved from Beaufort to Smyrna,” Mr. Hooper said. “We both have a science background and aquaculture seemed like a great way to diversify our fishing effort. We were pumping water for soft-shell crabs and soon using the same equipment to nursery clams.”

The Hoopers have a 1.6-acre lease in Midden’s Creek, where they’ve produced up to 250,000 clams and up to 80,000 oysters.

“The lease is in front of our house,” Mr. Hooper said, “so it’s very convenient to work. My business plan was to generate 20% of my income from aquaculture and I would spend 20% of my time on that part.”

Seafood isn’t the only use for aquaculture-raised shellfish. Mr. Hooper said he’s also produced brood stock oysters for the University of Maryland’s researchers, who in turn have provided him with oyster seed to use in his own operation.

Mr. Hooper said he thinks the shellfish aquaculture industry is “developing very nicely,” though there are plenty of challenges to it.

“Growing shellfish seemingly has a new set of issues every year,” he said. “This past year we have much more grass on the bottom of the lease. This is a good thing, but it feels like the bottom has gotten a little softer and we experience some (shellfish) mortality from bottom beds sanding up; we haven’t had that problem before.”

Hurricanes have also caused trouble for shellfish aquaculture, as well as nuisance species like boring sponges, which can kill oysters. Despite these challenges, Mr. Hooper seemed pleased with the continuing results from his investment of time and effort.

“I have a beautiful crop of clams just coming on that we planted in the fall of 2020,” he said. “We planted more seed this fall. We also worked with Dave Cerino of the aquaculture program at Carteret Community College to plant sunray Venus clams. We had some success with these and were able to offer them to the public.

“We were part of Wine and Brine at this year’s N.C. Seafood Festival, and the product was well-received,” Mr. Hooper continued. “We’ve been shipping some to restaurants in Wilmington; price and demand for our clams is very good.”

At 73 years old, he is a seasoned commercial fisherman who expanded into aquaculture to diversify his business. However, he said he’s seen a new wave of oyster growers who are concentrating on shellfish aquaculture alone.

“They’ve invested significant amounts of money and hopefully will see a return on that investment,” Mr. Hooper said. “I think although the industry is growing rapidly, price for the product has been stable. A lot of this is due to the creative marketing of this new group of growers. As I work with some young growers, like Crystal Coast Oysters in Morehead City, I’m fascinated by their vision.”

 

Contact Mike Shutak at 252-723-7353, email mike@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.

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