HAMPSTEAD – Local fishing guides, waterfront property owners, and self-professed avid fishermen joined forces in vocally opposing proposed shellfish leases offshore of Topsail Island, arguing an overabundance of oyster farms are crowding out local waterways and cutting off access to bountiful fishing areas.
Nearly 30 people spoke Wednesday night during a North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries-hosted public hearing on shellfish lease applications of two area oyster farming companies.
The overwhelming consensus from those who packed a room in the Surf City Municipal Complex was, while they support local shellfish farming efforts, more leases will infringe upon popular fishing spots, impede boating and kayaking access, and affect the viewshed of waterfront properties near the farms.
And most said they are specifically against the water column lease applications of N. Sea. Oyster Co. and Pirate Oysters LLC, raising concerns about the floating equipment used for this type of shellfish farming.
Unlike bottom leases, where shellfish farming gear must be placed on or within 18 inches of the waterbed, equipment used in a water column lease cannot rest on the bottom or extend more than 18 inches above the bottom.
N. Sea. Oyster Co. owner and CEO Michael Conor MacNair explained Wednesday night that the 10-acre water column lease he’s applied for in Waters Bay will not expand the shellfish farming footprint in that waterway. Water column leases have to be over bottom lease areas.
“No one, including myself, is increasing the lease area,” he said, clarifying that the bottom lease area over which he wants to farm in the water column is nearly 100 years old.
Pirate Oysters LLC has applied for a 0.88-acre shellfish bottom lease and water column lease in Topsail Marshes.
MacNair said his company leaves large navigation channels fit for flat-bottom boats and kayaks within his lease areas.
“This lease is 1,200 feet from the shoreline. There is a 28-acre large spoil island separating this lease from the Intracoastal Waterway where most commercial fishing and recreational boating use exists. Commercial fishing that does exist in this bay is wild oystering, which oyster farms are proven to have a positive impact on, blue crab fishing, which oyster farming has a positive impact on, as well as we maintain extra buffers and channels around our lease to allow crab boats to get in and we stay 300 feet away from the string of crab pots that is placed in back waters,” he said.
MacNair expressed frustration, saying that no one – neither resident or fishing guide – has gone to him to talk about their concerns regarding his lease application.
“Why?” he asked. “If it’s everybody’s water, why can’t we all work together to figure out why we can use it for everybody. Isn’t that what would make the coastal economy thrive best?”
Lee Parsons, fishing charter captain of gottafly Guide Service in Hampstead, said the state needs to research the possible affects shellfish farming in the water column have on fisheries.
“Until the water column lease study is done I’m opposing all the work on leases in the state because the state needs to get on their act and they need to do this,” he said.
Parsons offered to take a state official out on his boat free of charge and as often as needed to observe the lease areas “to see what the fish are using.”
“I know the bottom leases are good for the fishery and I do not oppose the bottom lease in any way, shape or form. I fish them all the time. But with the water column leases, technically, from what I understand, we’re not allowed to be in there and I know for a fact how it’s affecting it. I’ve seen how it’s affected the grasses up in Traps Bay and what’s happened because of that.”
Hampstead resident and recreational kayak fisherman Lori Stage said she does most of her fishing in Waters Bay.
“I am not opposed to bottom leases per se, but I am vehemently opposed to the water column leases due to the loss of surface area for us kayakers to fish, the potential negative effects to the ecosystem and just the general loss of recreational use for that area,” Stage said. “I support and encourage small business when it makes sense and doesn’t hurt the environment nor if it infringes on others. This lease would potentially negatively affect the ecosystem and absolutely infringes on the rights of recreational fishermen to fish these waters.”
Area crabber Eustace Wood said he opposes MacNair’s lease application, “only because they want a vertical lease.”
“The areas that are taken up with the vertical lease, I can’t use them anymore,” Wood said. “They can say what they want to, you’re not going in there, you’re not going to get too close to them because you just can’t maneuver around (them) and there’s getting to be too many of them.”
Topsail Beach Mayor Steve Smith said that the town is in favor of oysters and agricultural growth. “However, certain restrictions need to be understood and applied to follow the letter of the law,” he said.
Smith said that state laws passed within the past year give the town jurisdiction over agriculture and aquaculture within town limits.
“We ask that you recognize these legal issues and abide by those,” he said.
North Carolina Shellfish Growers Association Vice President Chris Matteo disputed some of the comments made by previous speakers, calling them factually incorrect.
“These are state waters. They’re not local waters,” he said, adding that some legislation might have been slipped in making a change, “but the Farm Bureau will probably have something to say about that.”
Shellfish growers are farmers, he said, and do not fall under the jurisdiction of Coastal Area Management Act rules or those set by the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission.
“One of the biggest things that people have said tonight is they’re not against bottom leases, but they’re against column leases. Well, bottom leases can have gear up to 18 inches tall and in Conor’s case, the 10-acre lease, the water is not that high. So, whether it’s a water column or bottom lease, it’s impacting the same way on navigation and on access. We can’t restrict access to water column leases or bottom leases – something else I heard tonight,” he said.
He implored the crowd to look up research being done along the East and West coasts on floating gear and said that North Carolina was one of the last to allow shellfish farming in the water column.
Matteo advised local residents to talk to their local and state elected officials about getting shellfish lease moratoriums lifted in counties south of Pender, including New Hanover and Brunswick counties, so shellfish growers will have more areas in which to farm.
Shellfish farm lease areas have been allowed in North Carolina’s coastal public trust waters since 1858. The North Carolina General Assembly in 1989 enacted law that allows shellfish leases in the water column.
The public comment period closed Thursday.
Now the decision to approve or deny the leases, or approve them with conditions, rests in the hands of state Division of Marine Fisheries Director Kathy Rawls.