Shellfish leases turn into brier patch of thorny issues

By on March 9, 2018

Jay Styron tends to his oyster farm off Cedar Island in 2015. (Baxter Miller/Coastal Review Online)

Growth in shellfish mariculture leases pitched by legislators and others as opening the door to creating the Napa Valley of oysters in North Carolina has turned into a brier patch full of thorny issues.

During the most recent North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission meeting, the board instructed Division of Marine Fisheries staff to temporarily stop issuing and accepting shellfish lease applications for waters from Bogue Sound south.

The request asked the division to fully assess safety concerns and other regulatory needs, and report back to the commission at its next meeting in May.


Usually lease applications are accepted beginning in March because site investigations needed to determine if Army Corps of Engineers regulations are met can begin in April when the weather tamps down for the season.

Division Director Steve Murphey told the board he would seek legal counsel to see if the division has authority to temporarily halt application acceptance while issues are identified and solutions found.

Existing applications that have been accompanied with a check for the application fees can’t be blocked from being processed.


N.C. Assistant Attorney General Philip Reynolds represents the MFC, not the division, which lost its own attorney due to funding cuts a few years ago. As time permits, the Department of Environmental Quality provides legal advice to the division.

Legal advice had not yet been provided and those who wish to submit new applications should first call the division to check status of the lease program.


The MFC instruction followed the DMF presentation about the problems arising from the large increase in mariculture lease applications, including law suits aimed at blocking the granting of some leases.

User conflicts and safety issues such as navigational hazards caused by mariculture cages submerged just enough that they aren’t visible to boaters, water column depths too shallow during low tides, encroaching on federal waters and too close to hunting blinds were just some of the issues listed.

Dare County is already facing some issues. One application for both bottom and water column lease is on bottom owned by the federal government and managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

MFC Chairman Sammy Corbett said that a mariculture lease in the area where he sets crab pots would push out traditional commercial fishing activities that historically have taken place there.

In other areas, recreational fishermen have complained that it cuts them out of access to their favorite fishing holes.

When referring to marine shellfish operations, terms aquaculture and mariculture are used interchangeably.

“Growers who do not provide predator protection, cages etc., are not aquaculture operations as defined in Marine Fisheries Commission rule,” said Tina Moore of the DMF shellfish program. “This would include shell on bottom for natural spat set and clams on the bottom with no predator protection.

“Cage culture on bottom, and any use of the water column, would be considered an aquaculture operation in rule.”

There are 275 existing 10-year shellfish leases and franchises that total 1,910 acres. Included in that total are 183 bottom leases totaling 1,164 acres; 41 bottom combined with water column for mariculture comprised of 129 acres; and 51 franchises encompassing 520 acres.

Franchises are leases over recognized submerged land claims including fee simple claims such as Colonial-Era grants; leases that were issued many years ago; and NC Board of Education deeds for lands given to counties by the state to help fund education with their sale.

“Starting in 2016 the program began to observe more entrepreneur/non-traditional commercial fishermen applicants,” said Moore.

“That continues today although we do not specifically know why,” said Moore. “Changes to the shellfish lease law in 2015 and 2016 facilitated the use of intensive-high density shellfish aquaculture gear and lowered the cost of initial lease siting.”

Much if not most of the mariculture caged operations are with oysters that have been modified by introducing additional chromesomes so that they do not reproduce thus stay fat and can be harvested year round.

Bottom leases are natural oysters and do reproduce, thus are less meaty during spawning in the warmer months.

Water column leases must also have a bottom lease. Existing bottom leases can be amended to add water column. In calendar year 2012, DMF received two applications for bottom leases and four for water column. By 2016, the number had risen to 14 for bottom leases and 12 for water column.

In 2017, the number of applications exploded to 54 for bottom and 52 for water column. Many of the latest applicants are residents of the Triangle area and farther west in the state.

Although mariculture operations include placing piping, cages and other gear in the water, currently, there is no legal requirement for a bond, insurance or other measures to ensure that the lease is cleaned up after it is relinquished or terminated.

The division is authorized by statute to provide a 30-day notice to a leaseholder whose lease has been terminated or relinquished to remove all markers. If a leaseholder does not remove markers, then the state reserves the right to clean the site up and charge the leaseholder.

However, to the DMF, there is no dedicated funding for this type of activity, and the current lease program is not positioned to conduct this type of cleanup.

Prior to 2016, there were no funded positions for the lease program and it was staffed with Shellfish Mapping staff.

In 2016, the NCGA allocated $150,000 including two full-time positions, a Marine Fisheries Biologist I and a Marine Fisheries Technician II and about $59,000 in operating funds needed for a variety purposes including placing public notices which can be very expensive in newspapers in high population areas such as Wilmington.

Wild-harvested oysters, planted oysters on bottom and mariculture are combined in commercial landings statistics and are reported to be 653,873 pounds in 2016. The total landings as well as public vs private harvests have fluctuated widely over the past decade.

According to the Division of Marine Fisheries, there are several reasons that may have caused, individually or in combination, the slight decline in harvest from public bottom in the past couple of years.

One change is that in 2013, mechanical harvest was removed as a permitted activity under the Shellfish License and a commercial license is now required. In recent years, the cost of a license has doubled to $400 for a standard commercial fishing license.

In 2010, a monitoring trigger was put into place that closes some areas to mechanical harvest when sampling shows fewer than 26 percent of the oysters are of legal size.

And, according to the DMF, oyster stocks still haven’t rebounded from losses from Hurricane Irene in 2011, which majorly impacted mechanical harvest.

Following the storm, the oyster resources on the Middle Ground could not be located, probably due to sedimentation or physical relocation caused by waves or currents.

Many of the deeper water oyster resources located near Brant Island Shoal also were also significantly damaged.

Most of the damage was oyster mortality caused by detritus covering the oyster rocks. There also has been evidence of low dissolved oxygen events that may have impacted the resource.

And the nature of the seasonality of commercial fishing also may play a role. Coastal North Carolina has experienced a few mild winters that have prolonged other fisheries such as crabbing and shrimping so that fishermen may not have shifted to oystering.

Another possible stumbling block for the program may be the result of a motion approved by the MFC requesting that the General Assembly change what defines a commercial fisherman.

Included in the request is an elimination of the existing pool of about 3,000 available commercial fishing licenses and replacing it with a pool of 100 which would be added to only if fishermen choose to relinquish or not renew their existing licenses.

Applicants for mariculture leases do not need to have a license but anyone who harvests their product must have one.


  • Jay Styron

    So let’s look at some additional facts.
    1. Shellfish Mariculture provides positive environmental benefits to the surrounding waters by filtering excess nutrients, providing habitat for commercial and recreational species of finfish and crustsations and enhances submerged aquatic vegetation.
    2. Provides jobs to local communities, many of which have high unemployment and poverty rates. These jobs can be part of a suite of jobs for the individual or full time, year round. It’s scalable.
    3. Provides revenue back to the State through said jobs.
    4. Boater/fishermen can’t be denied access to leases and can motor through.
    5. The wild stock of oysters will never be able to meet demand of quantity or quality of oyster for the present day market.
    6. Most traditional bottom leases aren’t being worked and do not meet requirements for production. New bottom leases are using spat on shell and do not rely on wild set except one I know of.
    7.Water column leases are the most productive use of a given acreage per annum.
    8.We are using less than 1% of total allowable acreage for leasing.
    9. There is as much acreage covered by piers/docks in NC as there are shellfish leases.
    10. Sammy Corbett as chair of MFC petitioned the Director to stop leasing south of Bogue Sound while having leases himself. Also the week following he attended a lease hearing in Pender County to petition to not to allow leases near his leases and around “his honey holes”. Clearly a conflict of interest with his position. Also stating that the “triploid oysters eat all the wild oyster larvae and that’s why the wild oysters are in decline” which is scientifically not true.

    Monday, Mar 12 @ 8:12 am
  • Scott Burrell

    If the leasing application specifically states, (and according to Steve Murphey it does) “applications will receive a decision in a timely manner”, do the applicants feel a timely manner is 8-9 months or longer?
    I personally witnessed several members who voted yes to this proposal, act if they had no clue what mariculture was nor the benefits to our pristine waters. If you are going to vote on an issue, learn the facts, receive comments from the public (not just homeowners), or recuse yourself from the vote. Mr. Corbett certainly should have recused due to his conflict of interest…yet he was the motion setter.
    This all coming from a committee that motioned and voted themselves replaced.

    Monday, Mar 12 @ 12:49 pm
  • Matthew Byrne

    1,910 Acres out of 1,920,000 [3,000 Sq. Miles x 640] [One Sq. Mile = 640 Acres]

    Just a little shellfish don’t you think….

    Tuesday, Mar 13 @ 8:27 am
  • Sean

    There is a single oyster farm in Washington. Goose point alone is 1900 acres. And it employees overy 80 people

    Tuesday, Mar 13 @ 11:49 am
  • Jack

    More shellfish in the sounds is great for people who like to eat healthy seafood; locals who like to work on the water; people who like a cleaner, healthier ecosystem in the sounds; taxpayers who will be glad some new workers will be sharing their onerous burden; government types who will have warm dreams over hiring inspectors etc. to protect the public; and did I mention people who like shellfish?.
    Obviously sites need to be marked so boats do not get entangled and existing water uses need to be respected. These issues are easy.
    Let’s get on with it!

    Wednesday, Mar 14 @ 1:22 pm
  • WIlliam

    A lot of the blowback on this issue has come from New Hanover County, where affluent waterfront residents object to the “unsightly” (my words) oyster cages that are exposed on low tide… same folks who attend fund-raiser oyster roasts to support local charities and government programs where they are “seen” supporting the community… guess they prefer Gulf of Mexico oysters…

    Tuesday, Mar 20 @ 4:30 pm
Recent posts in this category