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The disastrous feedback of what happens when fisheries funding dries up

Last week I had the good fortune of attending the NC Oyster Summit, hosted  by the NC Coastal Federation in the Museum of Natural Sciences. We talked about the wonders that oyster restoration and aquaculture development can do for water quality, economic development, and taste buds. We enjoyed the demonstration of ‘merriore’, or the taste of the sea that lends a particular flavor to each oyster that captures the ecosystem it grew in. Yet, the fact that stuck with me most is that despite all of these wonderful celebrations of the oyster for the health and well-being of NC’s coastal communities, funding cuts of around 40% to the Department of Marine Fisheries mean that a large portion of the Albemarle Sound remains closed to harvest or aquaculture because there are no staff to check those oysters for public health risks.

The “Administrative Closure” of the most northern stretches of the state’s prized Albemarle-Pamlico estuary system is a worrying precedent in many ways that highlight how leadership withdrawal of support for science can trickle down to real economic, environmental, and cultural harm.

Economic flight

The northeastern part of North Carolina is already one of the most sparsely populated regions of the country, and one that remains highly dependent on commercial fishing and tourism for their economy. To those who haven’t been there, this includes the prized Outer Banks, but also miles of low-lying swampland that produces more than its fair share of pickles, blue crabs, and cotton. Until this year, it was also a strong producer of oysters that are high enough up the estuary to hide from the salt-loving diseases that pressure oyster populations elsewhere. Wild harvest watermen no longer have oysters to diversify their portfolio of catch and supply the high-end oyster bars beginning to pop up in tourist hotspots. Aquaculture operations don’t have enough of a distribution network to get their product to market – and even when they do, they have to pay for their own bacterial testing. Aquaculturists at the conference already in the region reported shipping out all their delicious product to Norfolk for processing, which is the next nearest city. But fundamentally, this region is a shaky bet if a youngin’ wants to open their own seafood business, and as a result, more of the youngest generation are leaving for more stable prospects elsewhere, which means less tax dollars from those coastal counties, and continued reduced funding to the Shellfish Sanitation program, and so the cycle turns.

Environmental worries

While no-take areas are popular tools in environmental conservation, an administrative closure does not a marine protected area make. For one, if state agencies can’t monitor for human health pathogens, they certainly can’t observe for poachers in other fisheries. And the oyster guys are no longer out their keeping an eye on their areas either. This leaves hard-won increases in shad and even sturgeon populations in the area at risk. But perhaps more fundamentally, the instability and increased costs with opening an aquaculture business and uncertainty in support for restoration in an area with uncertain future will mean less overall oysters in the water, which is bad news for water quality. Oysters provide habitat for all kinds of other species, but most notably soak up at least some of the nitrogen running off of the pig and cucumber farms that dot the terrestrial landscape. Without the help of aquaculture and restoration efforts, those farms may have to look elsewhere (or pay) for those ecosystem services.

Cultural disappearance

A seafood distributor in Belhaven, one of the tiny towns still left in the region, once described his product as entertainment, rather than seafood. Be it cracking open a blue crab or diving into a table of roasted oysters, seafood currently reigns supreme in charismatic features of the estuary. The area was founded first by the Croatan tribe, who left behind huge middens of oysters, and later the tradition was carried out by Scotch-Irish immigrants who still lend their brogue to the local accent. Closing a huge portion of the shellfishery because the state can’t fund the salary of a public health monitor seems like the state is also turning its back on some of its heritage.

While North Carolina has made huge cuts across the board in its state spending, the more I think about the role of a relatively small program in producing exactly what those cuts are supposed to help achieve – more jobs in the regions of the state that need them the most, in an area with some of the oldest families on the East Coast. You may not believe in big government, but there is certainly a role for minimal government when they can improve the well-being of the state, as is clearly the case here.