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Leases for oyster farms within the protected reserve will not be renewed when they expire in 3 years

NEW HANOVER COUNTY -- 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.

Key dates

1985: Nature Preserves Act enacted in North Carolina.

1987: Preserves established at Masonboro Island, Zeke’s Island and the Rachel Carson Reserve in Carteret County.

2012: Marine Fisheries began lease process for oyster farms within state nature preserves.

2015: Holbrook established oyster farm within Masonboro reserve.

2016: Smeilus established oyster farm within Masonboro reserve.

November 2016: Natural Heritage Program officials were notified of oyster leases within Masonboro reserve.

March 2017: Department of Natural and Cultural Resources issues letter recommending leases not be renewed.

June 2017: Holbrook and Smeilus receive letters from Marine Fisheries informing them about non-renewal.

June 2021: Holbrook’s and Smeilus’ oyster leases will expire.

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.” 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.”

Ongoing study

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 inter-departmental agency conflict,” Holbrook said.

Reporter Cammie Bellamy can be reached at 910-343-2339 or

"Official"- Red Wolf Reintroduction Scandal / Red Wolf Scandal... 11/18 Update
« Last post by citizensscience on January 10, 2018, 07:46:55 PM »
Mr. President...  Why is the United States spending Millions and Millions to recover "Mexico's" Wolves?

Wolves that Mexico stated we DO Not Own??

Jack B. Woody, Acting Assistant Regional Director (AFA / FWS) stated…

"It would be impossible for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assume responsibility for wolves owned by Mexico which were released in the U.S.

For more on Mexico's Wolves click here...,456.msg964.html#msg964

#mexicanwolf #mexicangraywolf #graywolf #fwswolf #redwolf

Are part time, commercial fisherman placing North Carolina's full-time commercial fisherman sales tax exemption in jeopardy? 

It seems defining a commercial fisherman would go a long-way to protect these full-time fisherman, the same commercial fisherman who regularly report their taxable income. 

Perhaps the time has arrived to flush out part-time hobby fisherman?  Part timers who may have long gamed the #NCDOR for favorable sales tax status while reporting little to no gross commercial fishing income??

What are your thoughts?

#ncdor #ncpol #ncgov #ncwf #cca #ncfa #cooke #ncdmf #ncmfc #noaa #marinefisheries
I like this way of thinking is very high.
I'm looking for something to follow, but will it be there?
Typical well meaning but misdirected decision.  While undoubtedly some of those stunned trout may survive, many thousands more will die and go to waste to satisfy public perception (mostly due to pressure from CCA).   It is madness to manage speckled trout in NC to survive more than 3 years.  Historically NC is on the northern fringe of speckled trout habitat for winter survival, and averages a killing freeze every 3 years.  Sad that for all of our history these stun and KILL events have occurred on speckled trout and citizens picked them up and utilized them, but today's management practices would rather see the sea gulls, otters, and raccoons eat them than for people to do so.

Congratulations to Stephen Murphey - Director of North Carolina Marine Fisheries.

Director Murphey waste no time in taking action, to preserve the spotted sea trout fishery given cold stun weather event. 

Suntrust Mortgage Scandal / Suntrust Mortgage Scandal
« Last post by citizensscience on January 03, 2018, 07:55:32 PM »
But wait... 

Isn't this exactly what Mary Pettitt "Invented"?? 

Evidence to cover-up the deviation from agreed "Document Underwriter"
(DU) principles agreed to between its mortgage loan insurer, United Guaranty (UG) and SunTrust Mortgage?

Suntrust Mortgage Scandal / Re: Suntrust Mortgage Scandal
« Last post by citizensscience on January 03, 2018, 07:45:49 PM »
SunTrust Mortgage and its internal "Document Underwriter" manipulation practices?? 

You decide...

After all, isn't it these types of loans that were dumped onto the American Taxpayers books byway of Freddy, Fannie and Ginnie Mae?

Mortgage Fraud, Lost Note Affidavit, Mortgage Mill, Wells Fargo Scandal, SunTrust Scandal, SIGTARP
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