Thursday, October 17, 2019
EnvironmentNorth Carolina

New Aquaculture Development Act leaves many questions unanswered

Marine aquaculture is one of the fastest growing food-production methods in the world, and North Carolina is one of the most aquaculture-friendly states. In late June, the NC General Assembly passed an aquaculture bill designed to attract global seafood companies. But is enough known to support aquaculture in NC sounds?

The Marine Aquaculture Development Act (SB 410) is now awaiting Governor Roy Cooper’s signature, which, if signed, will allow it to become law. This bill gained little attention while making its way through the legislative process and is only now gaining attention.

If made into law, it would allow fish pen aquaculture in the internal waters of the state, including the sounds and bays. A press release issued by Sen. Bill Cook includes quotes from Ross Butler, an employee for Nova Scotia-based Cooke Seafood, which apparently requested the legislation. The foreign company purchased Wanchese Seafood two years ago and is heavily involved in this type of aquaculture in a number of foreign countries as well as in Maine.

The bill contains a provision that requests the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to work with federal officials to open the door to deep sea aquaculture, but a search of the company’s operations only brings up inshore operations, and photos show the pens close to inland shores.

Statements from some legislative offices indicate that they were told this bill would allow mariculture of oysters and clams in the sounds, but that is already allowed. In addition, in another bill, the Secretary of DEQ is instructed to designate a Shellfish Enterprise Zone and divide it into parcels, thus cutting the time needed to gain a permit. Those provisions seem to negate the need for this bill to do that activity.

In this state, the Department of Agriculture oversees aquaculture, but the new venture is being placed under the Marine Fisheries Commission and the Division of Marine Fisheries—neither of which has any experience in this area. There does not seem to be any money appropriated for additional staff with the needed scientific expertise.

Related law changes also have been tucked into other bills, including a provision to allow the operations to obtain a dealer’s license and sell directly to restaurants and seafood markets. Also, the bill allows importation of species from other locations as long as the species lives some part of its life in coastal waters. It doesn’t specify NC coastal water, and an exemption written in another bill exempts eels brought in from other states from having to comply with any rules that might be developed.

According to an application for fish pen sites filed by Cooke Seafood with the State of Maine, the salmon raised there are injected with antibiotics before being placed in the pens. Because of the diseases and parasites often found in pen-raised fish, pesticides are used to control them.

Cooke has purchased a number of other companies worldwide to tuck under its Cooke Aquaculture umbrella, thus stories about the company’s practices are often found under those subsidiaries’ names.

There appears to have been little if any due diligence before approving the act’s language; thus, many questions are left unanswered. Among them are:

Can wild stocks in the areas of the pens contract diseases of the farmed fish?

What do pesticides do to water quality and other species?

What are the ramifications of farmed fish escaping from pens, particularly exotic species? Will they compete for food? Will they breed with wild stock? Will they carry diseases?

What does the concentration of excrement do to water quality?

Can local governments stop the placement of pens near their shores?

What can be done to ensure that the pens don’t release the fish during storms?

Where are the fish going to be processed?

Will a related tax-supported grant be forthcoming to help underwrite the cost of establishing the pens?

If you would like to express your opinions for or against this new venture, contact Governor Cooper’s office at (919) 814-2000. If the governor chooses to veto this bill, and that is what you support, calls should be made to legislators across the state to ask them not to vote to override his veto.