Above: Shellfish lease, illustration by Melissa D. Smith.
North Carolina Sea Grant research is reflected in a new law. The North Carolina General Assembly has authorized establishment of shellfish aquaculture enterprise areas – preapproved zones for growing shellfish, such as oysters and clams.
Our research, conducted in 2016, explains how shellfish enterprise areas in neighboring states have spurred growth of the mariculture industry. I coauthored a publication of our findings with a legal expert and a law student to describe such programs in Maryland and New Jersey.
Those enterprise areas varied in size at the time: 176 acres in Maryland and 1,250 total acres at four separate sites in New Jersey. Existing enterprise areas have allowed multiple farms to be established in close proximity rather than a single entity leasing the entire area.
We don’t yet know how large the areas will be in North Carolina.
Shellfish enterprise areas would function as a lease of public trust waters from the State of North Carolina to individual growers. Single lease acreage is currently limited to 10 acres.
The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission would need to adopt rules to allow any higher acreage for use within the enterprise areas, according to Steve Murphey, director of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF).
Session Law 2019-37, known during legislative discussions as Senate Bill 648, also has authorized three pilot projects up to 50 acres in size in the Pamlico Sound.
In North Carolina, enterprise area leases are nontransferable and would revert to the state if relinquished or terminated. The legislation also calls upon NCDMF to explore establishing enterprise areas in waters that are now under a moratorium for shellfish leasing.
Enterprise areas have the potential to streamline the leasing process because NCDMF will identify some areas in advance that are appropriate for growing shellfish.
Currently, N.C. oyster growers select a farm site and then apply for a lease. They are not always successful. Lease approval requires a public hearing, in which concerns from adjacent property owners or other users of public trust waters like boaters and fishers can influence whether a proposed lease is approved or denied.
With enterprise areas, before the grower is ever involved, the NCDMF could identify sites where there are few or no public trust conflicts. The agency would ensure the sites met other established guidelines as well, such as avoiding areas populated by submerged aquatic vegetation.
Determining where the shellfish enterprise areas are located will be a collaborative process.
“Our intent is not to unilaterally select sites,” NCDMF director Murphey explains. Rather, NCDMF will work with partners, such as NOAA Fisheries experts who are conducting spatial planning analyses. The state officials also will conduct additional outreach to community leaders and stakeholders. “We need buy-in from the public for shellfish enterprise areas to be a successful venture.”
Establishing enterprise areas was among recommendations identified in the shellfish mariculture plan, a report commissioned by the N.C. General Assembly. The plan lists a variety of strategies to bolster the state’s shellfish industry. North Carolina Sea Grant’s marine aquaculture specialist Chuck Weirich and I assisted with developing the plan, as did numerous partners, including: North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, N.C. Shellfish Growers Association, N.C. Coastal Federation, NCDMF, and University of North Carolina system faculty, including several with research funded by Sea Grant.
One economic benefit of enterprise areas noted in the plan is that aggregation of leases would encourage new supporting supply chain sector businesses. Grower concentration could, for example, attract an oyster gear manufacturing and repair service business.
One goal of shellfish enterprise areas is to remove barriers and shorten the process for growers to have leases approved. The areas also allow the public to weigh in on lease sites at the front end — a more proactive approach to determining potential user conflict.
In addition, the economic and environmental benefits provided by increased oyster production could well serve many coastal communities. I look forward to seeing how these enterprise areas are designed and used.
Read more about shellfish enterprise areas:
“Looking to the Future of Oyster Aquaculture in North Carolina A Comparison of Regulations among Mid-Atlantic States,” in North Carolina Sea Grant’s Legal Tides, Autumn 2016.
“Cooper Signs Shellfish Aquaculture Bill” in Coastal Review
Jane Harrison serves as North Carolina Sea Grant’s coastal economics specialist.