State won’t renew permits for two farms within a protected reserve.
NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. — In 2015 and 2016, fishermen Al Smeilus and Tim Holbrook made waves when they opened oyster farms in the protected Masonboro Island Nature Reserve. Their state-issued leases let them plant oyster seeds on either the marsh bed or in floating cages.
But now those leases will not be renewed due to an unforeseen conflict with a state heritage program. When their five-year terms are up, the men have been told they’ll need to clear their farms from the reserve.
“It’s not fair,” Smeilus said. “I’ve probably got about $20,000 of my own time and money invested in there.”
Last year, Smeilus and Holbrook were informed their leases violated the state’s Nature Preserves Act, enforced by the N.C. Natural Heritage Program (NHP). While North Carolina allows oyster farms in estuaries throughout the state — after a rigorous approval process — Smeilus’ and Holbrook’s leases were unique in that they were issued within protected parts of Masonboro Sound.
The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries signed off on the leases with the understanding that the farms might actually improve water quality. But NHP (within the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources) has since alerted them that commercial activity is not allowed within nature preserves and that the farms are not compatible with the preserves act.
“NHP was not consulted prior to issuance of the above described leases and was not notified of them until November 2016,” reads a March 20 letter from DNCR Assistant General Counsel Jonathan Avery, provided to the StarNews.
“The NHP understands that the individual leaseholders did not intend to violate the Articles of Dedication or the Nature Preserves Act, and the staff members do not want them to suffer because of the current situation,” the letter continues. “NHP … does not seek (cancellation) of the existing leases during their current term, but DNCR and NHP object to any renewal or extension of the existing leases.”
The Nature Preserves Act was enacted in 1985 and the Masonboro reserve designated in 1987. It’s unclear why NHP was not involved in the approval process for the oyster leases, and now Smeilus and Holbrook find themselves up a creek.
Sarah Young, spokeswoman with the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, wrote in an email that the leases expire in 2021, and the state plans to deny future applications for shellfish leases within reserves.
The StarNews has reached out to officials with Marine Fisheries and Natural Heritage Program and is waiting to hear back.
“It is quite disheartening to spend three years developing a new business in an emerging industry to learn that these things were not worked out in advance,” Holbrook said. “Because, as with every other lease, my lease went through a public hearing over two years ago and every agency within the state was well informed.”
Masonboro.org co-founder Richard Johnson, whose organization promotes responsible public use of Masonboro Island, said that NHP was alerted to the oyster leases by the N.C. Coastal Reserve, which manages the Masonboro reserve.
“When the Coastal Reserve asked the Natural Heritage program (NHP) for input on oyster leases it seemed unusual and the outcome certainly did not serve the public’s trust,” Johnson wrote in an email. “Still, I remain confident the leadership of the (Department of Environmental Quality) and NCDNCR is caring, well meaning and will work hard to resolve the issues created by this situation.”
The change would not affect other nearby oyster farms that sit outside of the reserve area. A full-page ad that recently appeared in the StarNews opposing Masonboro oyster farms, placed by Masonboro Sound residents, was focused on farms outside the reserve.
As for Smeilus’ and Holbrook’s leases, the men have about three years to reach a solution with the state before their farms — which total about 7 acres — must be removed.
That is enough time for researchers at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) to complete an ongoing study of how oyster farms effect their surrounding ecosystems — a study that includes the Masonboro farms and some in Onslow County. In 2016, UNCW received a $673,000 grant for the study from the National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERRS).
“The study itself will be sort of concluding for us before their leases are up for renewal,” said researcher Troy Alphin. “To have this policy come out before our data has come out is a little concerning.”
Smeilus said he was hopeful that data would have shown his farm was helping filter and enhance the sound.
“(NHP) acted before the science,” he said. “If the study showed that oyster farming was bad for the reserve, I would be the first to leave.”
Holbrook said he has been speaking with Marine Fisheries Director Steve Murphey about his issue. Murphey, who took over as director this month, formerly led DMF’s Habitat and Enhancement division, working regularly on oyster habitats. Murphey did not return a request for comment but wrote in June letters to Smeilus and Holbrook that the division would help the men find other sites for their farms.
“I am encouraged that now with Steve Murphey as director of DMF — and knowing him to be fair-minded — that there will be an amicable resolution to what seems to have been an interdepartmental agency conflict,” Holbrook said.
Cammie Bellamy is a reporter for the Wilmington (N.C.) StarNews.