People had a chance to weigh in on whether or not they think a portion of the water bottom near Masonboro Island should be leased to grow commercial quantities of shellfish.
Shellfish leasing allows individuals to lease a portion of the water bottom to farm shellfish, typically clams or oysters. There are about 279 shellfish leases throughout North Carolina, according to officials with the Division of Marine Fisheries.
The section up for consideration off of Masonboro Island is approximately 4.7 acres in Big Bay in the Masonboro Island National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Al Smeilus said he is hoping to lease the 4.7 acres to farm oysters for family business. The lease would be a five-year lease. During a public hearing Wednesday, he argued that the oyster farm would help enhance the water in the area and be a win-win for everyone.
"Each oyster will filter about 50 gallons of saltwater a day. They will actually be cleaning the water. When we plant a million oysters, that's 50 million gallons of clean water that will be produced," said Smeilus.
He said he grew up fishing in the area. He said he has noticed the oyster population has gone down.
"The oyster population, even in the middle of October when the season opened up, oysters were almost depleted from the years before," said Smeilus. "Then with heavy oystering during the year, the numbers are going down." He said harvesting the oysters he grows will help protect naturally growing oysters. Smeilus said planting one million oysters, as he hopes to, will also help to build up the natural oyster population.
Area fisherman also believe this will help contribute to the ecosystem.
"This offers an opportunity to increase the habitat, by cleaning the water, by growing oysters and when you have oysters you have shrimp and little bait fish - and I see it as a win-win," said Michael Goins.
If the lease is approved, Smeilus hopes that students who take field trips to Masonboro Island can study the oyster farm and incorporate it into their lesson. Smeilus said he has also spoken with UNCW about potentially having students come do research projects at the farm.
One person spoke out against the lease, stating his concern with people who try to fish in the area. He was worried hooks would get caught on the cages.
Smeilus explained the area isn't visited often because there isn't any water there during low-tide. He also said cages would only take up a third of the farm, the rest would be oyster beds. The cages would be well-marked.
The individual was also concerned, if the lease is approved, he would no longer be able to harvest stout razor clams in that area, something he said he has done before.
While, the decision process also includes a site assessment to ensure there is not a natural shellfish bed in that location, stout razor clams are not included.
If the lease is approved, it wouldn't prohibit anyone from visiting the leased water or fishing on it. They would only be prohibited from harvesting shellfish at that location.
After gathering all of the information possible and reviewing the public comments, the Director of the Division of Marine Fisheries will deny or approve the lease with conditions.
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