‘Oyster Summit’ Paying Dividends

Participants in the N.C. Coastal Federation’s March 10-11 “oyster summit” in Raleigh came away energized and optimistic, but realize there’s a long road ahead if  the state hopes to restore the fishery to any semblance of its past economic and environmental importance.

“I think we were really pleased with the diversity of the attendance,” said Ted Wilgis, coastal outreach specialist in federation’s regional office in Wrightsville Beach. “We had regulators, resource agencies, harvesters, growers, private citizens, nonprofits and legislators. Everyone you would want to be there was there, and we had great panel presentations and lots of good exchanges of ideas and information within the groups and between individuals. It was a good starting point.”

Ted Wilgis

Ted Wilgis

The summit focused on exploring strategies and actions as outlined in the updated 2003 Oyster Blueprint for Action, which links oyster and coastal habitat restoration with water quality and watershed restoration, fishery enhancement and mariculture development and public engagement and stakeholder leadership.

Generally, according to a report prepared by the federation, participants in the summit agreed that “North Carolina has a great opportunity to spark considerable economic growth and environmental improvement by investing in its oyster fishery and coastal restoration,” through public and private investment, small business development and enhanced resources.

In addition, many participants noted that the benefits of restoring the state’s oyster industry could be done in a way that complements its coastal tourism economy and the unique character of coastal communities.

Follow-up discussions in working groups will be a key, Wilgis said, but he was particularly pleased that some legislators seemed willing to act. One of those, Rep. Paul Tine, an unaffiliated House member from Dare County, delivered the keynote address at the summit and has already introduced legislation.

House Bill 302, which has drawn support from both sides of the political aisle, directs the state Division of Marine Fisheries to study North Carolina’s shellfish lease and franchise program, including  the  regulatory,  statutory  and  other  obstacles  faced  by  the  private  shellfish  aquaculture  industry  in  establishing  or  expanding  shellfish  cultivation  operations. It would also require a summary of shellfish leasing and franchising programs in other states and a comparison of the private shellfish aquaculture industry in North Carolina to other states.

The bill would also direct the state to study the economic and legal feasibility for public-private partnerships to engage in state-based production of viable oyster seed through the creation of one or more production hatcheries in  North Carolina and to provide recommendations for best practices to achieve greater opportunities for North Carolina’s  shellfish  aquaculture  industry  and  greater  program  efficiencies,  including  developing a  10-year  plan  for  the  encouragement  and  enhancement  of  shellfish  aquaculture.

The study would be due by April 1, 2016, and Tine said last week he believes the bill has a good chance of passing.

Rep. Paul Tine

Rep. Paul Tine

“You hesitate to say anything like that, because it has a long way to go and there are a lot of people to convince, but I have been encouraged by the support so far from the leadership and others,” he said. “It’s sometimes hard to convince folks inland of the importance of these kinds of things, but I think more and more are realizing the significance and the potential of oysters to help our economy and our environment.”

Oysters filter pollutants as they feed, and most experts now consider a healthy oyster population to be a good indicator of the overall health of coastal waters. And everyone, Tine said, realizes the importance of healthy coastal waters to the state’s economy.

The bill also amends similar 2015 legislation that would have created in Pamlico Sound a shellfish sanctuary named for the late Jean Preston of Emerald Isle, a former state House and Senate member. The new language would declare it the intent of the legislature to establish a network of such sanctuaries, harvestable enhancement sites and coordinated support for the development of shellfish aquaculture.

In his speech during the summit, Tine outlined some of the reasons he supports oyster work all over the state’s coast.

“In urban areas, when we talk about ‘infrastructure,’ we think of roads and bridges and utilities,” he said. “On the North Carolina coast, where visitors spend $2.7 billion per year to fish, play on our beaches, explore our parks and enjoy our waterways, the most important infrastructure is water. Without clean water, all that money and about 30,000 tourism-related jobs go away.”

That’s why that, like roads and bridges in a city, water quality on the coast needs to be improved and maintained, Tines said. Too often, he noted, the discussion about clean water dissolves into an argument between economic development and conservation, when, in truth, it’s a false choice.  One relies, Tine said, on the other.

“Enter the lowly oyster – which a growing number of people believe can help us keep our water clean, put folks to work, attract more visitors, and make for some very good eating,” Tine said.

Oysters, he noted, clean the water by filtering as many as 50 gallons of water a day and the reefs they create become valuable habitat for about 2,400 fish and bird species.

“Oysters can also put a lot of people back to work,” he said in the speech. “Some commercial oyster growers can earn as much as $40,000 a year from a single acre. That’s a lot of money for many people in our rural counties where jobs can be hard to find. It’s also a good source of income for folks who used to work in commercial fishing or still do, but need to supplement their income.”

Sen. Bill Cook

Sen. Bill Cook

Another legislator, Sen. Bill Cook, a Republican from Beaufort County whose district includes almost all of the coast north of Carteret County, has introduced a bill that focuses more specifically on rules and regulations that currently hinder shellfish leasing and aquaculture. Senate Bill 573 would create an entity within the N.C. Economic Development Partnership to focus on those goals and would direct the fisheries division to repeal the Core Sound lease moratorium, which came into being long ago when commercial harvesters of wild shellfish feared too much public bottom was being leased, especially to folks who weren’t really serious about shellfish production.

“Along with Senator Jerry Tillman and Senator Norman W. Sanderson, we filed Senate Bill 573 to encourage and promote the aquaculture as well as the oyster cultivation industries in North Carolina,” Cook said. “This is another great example of how we are focused on helping to promote opportunities for our shellfish and commercial fishermen in Eastern North Carolina.”

Cook said he was encouraged to file the bill in part by a report he had seen that compared the aquaculture industries in North Carolina and neighboring Virginia. Both states suffered declines in their oyster fisheries, but Virginia appears to have focused more on private efforts to rebuild it.

“In North Carolina there is a significant amount of potential for oyster aquaculture to become a greater source of income and economic prosperity for North Carolina’s commercial fishing industry,” Cook said. “North Carolina shellfish aquaculture has made steady progress in the last decade, but it’s not enough to match our competition or market opportunity.”

Virginia’s oyster aquaculture operations generated $9.5 million in 2012, he noted. North Carolina’s in that same year produced $595,446, Cook said.

“Virginia oyster aquaculture revenue exceeded by $6.3 million the entire harvest of wild and cultured North Carolina oysters,” he said. “Over a seven-year period, there was explosive growth in oyster aquaculture sales in Virginia and practically flat growth in North Carolina’s.”

Jordan Hennessy, an aide to Cook, conceded that the atmosphere in the N.C. General Assembly might make it tough to get an environmental bill through, but said oyster legislation has the great benefit of being environmentally friendly and a potentially terrific economic engine.

“It’s a win-win,” he said. “And we think most people recognize that.”

Some, however, are disappointed that neither of the bills sets concrete goals for rehabilitation and restoration of oyster habitat, which is one of the key focal points of the federation. A specific goal – an acreage number by a certain date – would serve as a rallying point to generate enthusiasm for those public-private ventures, particularly among the federation’s army of volunteers who already dedicate lots of time to restoring and creating habitat.

This video was shot in 2010 in Bluffton, S.C., of the last two commercial oyster shuckers in the Carolinas. Not that long ago, thousands of people, like the two women featured here, gathered in buildings nestled along countless creeks  along the coast to shuck oysters and sing the old hymns.

Wilgis conceded that his organization would like to see specificity, but that there is probably more work to do before such concrete goals can be set. “We’re trying to work toward that through the working groups,” he said. “But a lot of this is really new. We don’t really know, for example, how much habitat we have now. We’re starting to get a handle on that, but it’s not where we’d like it yet. Once we get more information, once we get more detail, everyone involved will feel more comfortable setting specific goals.”

The health of the oyster stock is another unknown, Wilgis added. The fisheries division, he said, is in the middle of updating its oyster fishery management plan, and that will generate data and provide more opportunities for discussion.

The stock status is currently listed as “concern,” but the narrative notes that there have been significant harvest improvements in recent years. Still, the division concedes it needs more information about such things as habitat size and location, oyster mortality and bottom disturbance caused by different fishing techniques, parasite life history and f transmission and accurate landing data for commercial and recreational harvests.

Dr. Charles “Pete” Peterson, a shellfish expert and researcher at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, is also a big supporter of efforts to enhance the oyster fishery. He attended the summit and thinks that the diversity of the attendance at the summit bodes well for near-term efforts. But, like Wilgis, he emphasized that follow-up will be crucial, especially convincing legislators and other policy-makers.

Peterson said he’s encouraged by the legislation already filed, but would like to see a kind of “super committee” formed to help guide the efforts once decisions have been made.

“We need a subset of knowledgeable people from all parts of the industry, from the state agencies, from the conservation groups, to work together as we move forward,” he said. “Whatever we do, needs to be a consensus.”


About the Author

Brad Rich

Brad Rich is a reporter for the Carteret County News-Times in Morehead City. He has written about fishery and environmental issues along the central North Carolina coast for 35 years. He lives in Hubert with his wife, Gwen.