Raleigh, N.C. — A proposal moving through the state Senate calls for leasing waters off the North Carolina coast so people can farm fish.
Senate Bill 410 would allow people to lease from 100 to 1,500 acres in the state's sounds and the Atlantic Ocean, where they could build underwater pens to raise various species of fish that they could later sell to supermarkets and restaurants.
"We're creating an industry here," sponsor Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, told members of the Senate Finance Committee this week. "This is not something we're doing in North Carolina. This will allow us to do fish farming and bring in some big bucks."
Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, told lawmakers that fish farming is a $100 million business in his state, which has been leasing areas along its coast for 35 years.
"The sector is growing worldwide," Belle said, adding that fish farming "will help keep kids in those (coastal) communities working on the waterfront."
The North Carolina legislation prohibits leases that would interfere with navigation channels or public access to waters and in areas with existing commercial shellfish beds, that are used extensively for hunting or fishing or that have been declared off-limits because of pollution. The 10-year leases would cost $210 per acre per year, and the Department of Environmental Quality would be allowed to terminate a lease for non-payment of rent, discontinuation of a farming operation on the leased site or failure to mark the boundaries of the leasehold.
Anyone caught stealing fish from a leased site could be charged with a misdemeanor and be fined up to $5,000, under the proposal.
Jerry Schill, director of government relations for the North Carolina Fisheries Association, said commercial fishermen don't oppose opening state waters to fish farming, saying the new industry "would augment" existing operations.
The bill directs the state Marine Fisheries Commission to petition the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to draft rules that would also allow fish farming in federal waters off North Carolina's coast.
The measure heads to the Senate Rules Committee before getting a floor vote.