News

Local oyster farmers help put the brakes on lease-expanding legislation

The Devil Shoals in the Pamlico Sound, a few miles into the water from here from Devil Shoals Road across from the NPS Campground, are where Devil Shoals Clam and Oyster and Woccocon Oyster companies have their oyster farms. Photo: C. Leinbach

Editor’s note: The short session of the N.C. General Assembly ended recently without passing House Bill 361, described below. So, according to news sources, that bill is dead for now, but it may be taken up in the next General Assembly regular session beginning Tuesday, Nov. 27.

As of press time for the July print edition of the Ocracoke Observer, the N.C. House was trying to act on HB 361, but the bill was not brought to the floor.

For up to date news on Ocacoke, click here

By Connie Leinbach

As Ocracoke’s nascent oyster farming industry begins to stand up, local oyster farmers urge caution in the face of the N.C. General Assembly’s recent efforts to allow large-scale operations.

In the last days of the short legislative session that ended June 30, legislators scurried to try to pass a shellfish aquaculture bill to expand shellfish leases, first sponsored by Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, and passed by the N.C. Senate.  It then became House Bill 361 (Support Shellfish Industry). 

According to the website Citizens for a Level Playing Field:  “In the Chesapeake Bay, both Virginia and Maryland have lease caps of 2,000 total acres. Other states like Louisiana and Washington allow for similarly high caps. Improving our shellfish leasing program will help North Carolina regain its competitive edge regionally, particularly with respect to Virginia.”

HB 361 was endorsed by Jay Styron of the Carolina Mariculture Company, Cedar Island and president of the North Carolina Shellfish Growers Association, and a number of its members.

But a majority of the group’s members–concerned about the potential for out-of-state and international companies to purchase large leases in the sound–opposed the bill as written and urged stepping back.

“The majority of us still have concerns we would like to have addressed,” said Heather O’Neal, who with her husband, Fletcher and another person, own Devil Shoals Oyster and Clam Company, the first Ocracoke-based company to have an oyster-farm lease in 2016.

While the bill was in play in the last week of June, local oyster farmers believe that state representatives don’t know what’s at stake: Allowing big aquaculture companies to snatch up large tracts of water to create big operations would eventually squeeze out the little guys.

Since the bill is dead after this short session, it’s a setback for Canadian owned Cooke Seafood USA Inc., which lobbied successfully last year to allow out-of-state corporations to build up to 1,500-acre aquaculture operations in state waters.  In 2015, Cooke USA acquired Wanchese Fish Co., a big seafood supply company in Dare County.

While local oysterers are in favor of some parts of the bill which address some of the technical aspects of oyster farming, they object to the speed and secrecy in which this bill was pushed.

An oyster harvest by Devil Shoals Clam and Oyster Co. Photo: C. Leinbach

“This was never brought to our attention,” said Fletcher O’Neal about the N.C. Shellfish Growers Association’s position. 

“This is all for one company,” said Heather O’Neal. “Legislation for one company is bad legislation.”

The major bones of contention were the bill’s elimination of North Carolina residency requirement and its allowance for leases up to 200 acres. (In Bill Cook’s first bill, the maximum acreage was 300.)

Currently, the maximum growers can lease is 50 acres at $100 per acre per year in both bottom and water column leases. The proposed bill would raise that price to $200 per year.

Legislators may tout that this bill allowing large-scale operations will provide more jobs, but Fletcher said the shellfish workforce in Hyde County is already down about 50 percent.

“The workforce is immigrants,” Fletcher said. “If they’re so concerned about growing this industry they should grow their own local growers first.”

Stevie Wilson, owner of Woccocon Oyster Co., says this effort to expand water lease size is jumping the gun specifically because the industry is so young.  Wilson said that three years ago, 10 oyster leases were applied for in Eastern N.C. and last year that grew to 54 leases applied for.

“Ninety percent of oyster cultivation is new within the last three years,” he said. “How can you make a good decision about the management of the resource when the industry is so young? They (the legislators) don’t know enough about this issue.”

Wilson, along with Albert O’Neal and Dylan Bennink, began growing prize-winning oysters in March 2017 in 10 acres of water in the Devil Shoals area of the Pamlico Sound.

“This is a public trust issue,” Wilson said. “The residents of North Carolina own this water. Why should we give it away or make rash decisions?”

It takes at least a year to even obtain a lease because N.C. Marine Fisheries has to make sure the proposed area is free of sub-aquatic vegetation, wild stock already there, and that it doesn’t impede boats, Heather O’Neal said.

The Pamlico Sound is extremely well-suited for shellfish growing, principally because its protected waters are clean, Wilson said.

It wasn’t a fluke that Woccocon oysters won first prize last November in the “Shuck, Rattle and Roll” oyster competition at Carteret Community College, Beaufort.

“Being 23 miles off the coast, we have a heavy influx of ocean water,” Wilson said.

Thus, the sound provides high salinity, high-quality water in which oysters can flourish.

And oysters are good for the water.

Oysters are among the most sustainable forms of food production available, filtering the water around them and improving fish habitat, says the Citizens for a Level Playing Field website. According to a recent study, led by University of Washington professor Ray Hilborn, farmed shellfish are among the least carbon-intensive sources of food, and have among the smallest environmental impact.

Local farmers agree.

“One oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day,” Fletcher O’Neal said. “That’s why the state should give the growers an annual stipend—we’re cleaning the water.”

Both companies harvest several thousand oysters per week and sell them on Ocracoke as well as beyond.

“Ours are sold here and in high-end restaurants in Raleigh,” Heather said.

Ocracoke’s county commissioner Tom Pahl said Hyde County has supported local aquaculture projects by providing low interest loans and should continue to help those small operations become the big growers in this industry. Tourists would come to Ocracoke especially for the good-tasting oysters.

“Other states have large leases available,” he said. “If we don’t get in (on this) we’ll be small-time in the aquaculture business.”

Heather O’Neal said that in a rare accord, duck hunters and commercial and recreational fishing groups were against this bill.

Devil Shoals, Woccocon and other oyster farmers sent a letter against the bill.

“No one wants it,” she said.

 

Stevie Wilson and Dylan Bennink with their prize-winning Woccocon oysters at the December Oyster Roast. Photo: C. Leinbach