BEAUFORT — Shellfish growers may be able to use floating structures at their lease sites in the near future, once state officials create regulations for it.
The N.C. Coastal Resources Commission held its regular meeting Wednesday at the Beaufort Hotel on Lennoxville Road. This was the first in-person meeting the commission has had since February 2020 due the coronavirus pandemic.
During the meeting, the commission directed the N.C. Division of Coastal Management to look into drafting regulations for permitting floating structures for shellfish aquaculture leases. DCM Director Braxton Davis said he wants to come back to the CRC with drafted permitting rules at the commission’s September meeting.
Existing CRC regulations don’t allow floating structures on shellfish aquaculture leases, and any such structures found have to be removed.
N.C. Coastal Federation assistant director of policy Ana Zivanovic-Nenadovic gave a presentation to the commission on the importance of floating structures to shellfish aquaculture Wednesday.
“The current need for the industry is to have some kind of floating structure on the lease,” she said. “Most of the states that have large (aquaculture) industries allow these structures.”
Ms. Nenadvoic said the federation has done a study of state shellfish aquaculture industries and found North Carolina’s industry has a value of approximately $3 million to $5 million. In comparison, the industry in Maryland, which permits floating structures on leases, is valued at about $53 million, the highest on the Atlantic coast.
According to Ms. Nenadovic, shellfish growers use floating platforms for a variety of activities necessary to shellfish aquculture, particularly growing oysters. These include oyster grading (separating oysters by size), gear maintenance and harvesting.
She said while these activities can theoretically be done on land, it’s not practical. The only places these activities wouldn’t risk being a nuisance to neighboring property owners would be sites appropriate for commercial fishing operations. Prohibitive land costs would create a barrier to entry into the aquaculture industry and the remoteness of rural areas where leases may be located create issues of access and providing refrigerated storage.
The state’s existing floating structure policy was created by the CRC in the 1980s, according to DCM Deputy Director Mike Lopazanski. This policy, which was created in response to a proposal to build a floating house in New Hanover County, focuses on trust rights and water quality.
“We’ve had a number of challenges to the floating structure policy,” Mr. Lopazanski said at Wednesday’s meeting. “With all these cases, we’ve been successful with arguing the validity of the floating structure policy.”
State officials have been exploring regulations to support the shellfish industry, however. Mr. Lopazanski said they’ve been working on draft language for permitting floating upweller systems, a type of floating structure, for permitted marinas and private docks. This draft will come before the CRC at its November meeting.
He also said 14 of the coastal counties that fall under the Coastal Area Management Act have their own policies regarding floating structures. However, these primarily deal with floating homes.
“Most of the counties support aquaculture,” Mr. Lopazanski said.
Chris Matteo of Siren’s Cove Shellfish, who owns a 6.5-acre shellfish aquaculture operation in Carteret County, said to him, the floating structure issue is “largely been one of semantics.”
“A barge that doesn’t have propulsion doesn’t make it a structure,” he said. “We put the onus on ourselves to grow this industry. Shellfish farmers have certain needs…(A floating structure) is definitely a necessary piece of equipment to grow this industry.”
Most of the commission supported finding a way to permit floating structures on aquaculture leases in a way that balances protecting public trust waters and supporting aquaculture.
“I know (the N.C. Division of) Marine Fisheries has standards and where to permit the leases,” said CRC member Larry Baldwin, “but it’s still going to come back to the CRC to deal with user conflicts.”
CRC member Neal Andrew agreed.
“I support whatever we can do to support local fishermen and continued enjoyment of the coastal waters of the state,” Mr. Andrew said.
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