Will the N.C. General Assembly support oyster farmers?

RALEIGH – The state’s shellfish growers could receive a boost from Raleigh if the Marine Aquaculture Development Act becomes law, experts said.

If passed, the bill would create a permitting process for aquaculture activities such as shellfish growing, while also requesting the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries ask the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fishery Management Councils to allow the work in the federal waters off the state’s coast.

Senate Bill 410 has been referred to the body’s rules committee, while its companion bill, House Bill 524, has been referred to that body’s environmental committee.

Jay Styron, the president of the N.C. Shellfish Growers Association, said the bill’s regulations are important, but also represent a positive signal from Raleigh regarding how the industry is viewed.

“It sends a message that the state is starting to recognize the importance of aquaculture and mariculture to the state itself,” Styron said, “and letting people know that Raleigh supports us now and finds us important.”

Styron and his wife, Jennifer, operate Carolina Mariculture Co. on Cedar Island.

Historically, oyster farmers have scattered shells on the ocean floors and either planted larvae in them or hope the baby oysters would find them and mature there. Now, operators such as the Styrons use floating cages to grow oysters so that they are uniform in size.

“They’re very consistent in size and shape, so they’re highly marketable to white tablecloth restaurants, oyster bars and the like,” said Chuck Weirich, a N.C. Sea Grant marine aquaculture specialist.

Oyster farms also can benefit the environment, Weirich added. An adult oyster can filter between 30 and 50 gallons of water a day, with a 1-acre farm leading to as many as 1 million oysters.

In recent years, the state has seen the number of water column leases spike, jumping from 14 in 2013 to 35 in 2015. The number of shellfish leases has also jumped, rising from 222 in 2013 to 266 in 2015, according to a N.C. Aquaculture presentation.

Interest is growing in North Carolina, Styron said, but the state is still lagging behind others such as those in the Gulf of Mexico and New England.

“We have as good or better water resources than a lot of those states, and yet we have very little shellfish industry in our state,” Styron said. “There’s no good reason why we don’t, and in the past, I think, it’s because we haven’t been recognized by the legislators as a viable industry.”

While North Carolina farmers have not yet developed to the point where they are exploring offshore methods, there is an industry developing in New England and off the Gulf of Mexico. It is not hard, Weirich said, to imagine a day where the state would have an interest in those efforts.

“It’s a very proactive move by the legislature to look into this,” he said, “so when it does eventually develop down the road we already have that taken care of.”