Rural Carteret County, N.C. Builds its Marine Science Cluster
By Amy Murray

Until 2002, Carteret County couldn’t see the ocean for the fish.

Putting a seaworthy spin on an old saying seems appropriate for this coastal North Carolina county. The county is home to a federal marine laboratory, three university-based marine science laboratories, a community college-based aquiculture program, and the marine division of a state regulatory agency. Most of these institutions have been in the county for decades and employ hundreds of local citizens.

“I was fascinated,” Dave Inscoe says of his realization that Carteret County had been overlooking its marine science cluster, which encompasses a wealth of assets in an industry where applications range from preserving natural resources to building sustainable fisheries to saving lives. Inscoe is the executive director of the Carteret County Economic Development Council.

During the past three years, Inscoe and leaders of the county’s marine-based entities have been making up for lost time with the establishment of the Marine Science and Education Partnership (MSEP). The collaborative is working to improve the local environment for marine-related business and industry and bring more attention and opportunity to this rural county.

In 2002, Inscoe invited the heads of marine research, education, and governmental institutions in the county to meet. “These guys knew each other, but they hadn’t had a chance to talk to one another” about how a symbiotic relationship could benefit cooperating institutions and bring significant economic gains to Carteret County, Inscoe says.

The group established the MSEP in 2003. The partnership then commissioned an economic analysis by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The study revealed that the nine MSEP members directly employ 401 full-time staff in Carteret County. More significantly, the economic impact of MSEP members accounts for 3,162 jobs and $127 million in economic output—8 percent of the county’s economy.

Those involved say it wasn’t long before the creation of the partnership started having an impact on community awareness. “I don’t think [county citizens] had any idea of the economic impact of all these institutions,” says Dr. Joe Barwick, president of Carteret Community College, a member of MSEP. “They’re starting to recognize what a true asset they have.”

The community has many reasons to be proud, and just as many reasons why companies seeking a location that combines an incredible knowledge base, training infrastructure, a supportive business climate, and unbeatable quality of life should take a hard look at Carteret County.

One of the most salient features of the county’s marine cluster is the extraordinary breadth and depth of its research presence.“The intellectual capital is huge,” says Jessie White, director of the office of economic and business development at UNC-Chapel Hill. “You have an unusual concentration of highly trained and educated people for a [rural] county.”

When it comes to research institutions, North Carolina’s heavy hitters all have a presence in Carteret County and the MSEP. At UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences, a central mission is using research to inform public policy. Focuses include beach nourishment, water quality, and the use of marine life in medicines.

Conservation takes center stage at the Duke University Marine Laboratory. Research ranges from the development of preservation and monitoring equipment to studies involving the conservation of marine species.

North Carolina State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology (CMAST) offers a fisheries management fellowship that allows graduate students to apply their knowledge at the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, a state regulatory agency and fellow MSEP member. The North Carolina Sea Grant program, based out of N.C. State University’s CMAST, supports research and education efforts in the areas of fisheries, water quality, seafood production, and mariculture.

At the Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research, researchers are exploring the effects on survival of raising fish in natural habitats versus tanks. The Center, part of the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is also examining the effects of meteorological phenomena on specific ecosystems and fish species.

Adding to what is nearly an embarrassment of academic riches is Carteret Community College, which contributes not only research but also a vital training component to the MSEP mix. The college’s new Aquiculture Technology Program teaches students how to produce seafood under controlled conditions.

The establishment of MSEP has meant formerly disconnected organizations now communicate on a regular basis, enabling them to pool resources when appropriate and team up on projects, allowing a higher return for the institutions and the community.

Examples of collaborations include Duke University Marine Laboratory and the NOAA working together to prevent storm water from flowing into waters adjacent to a restored marsh. UNC hosts lab space for N.C. State University, and NCSU is sharing high-speed Internet access with partners.

A supportive climate that helps businesses succeed is another key element of any community’s economic development efforts. This is especially critical in rural areas. The programs of MSEP members meet this need. For example, last year NCSU’s Sea Grant added a coastal business specialist who works with businesses to increase competitiveness. According to Sea Grant Director Ronald Hobson, the program’s business outreach activities involve anything from helping businesses develop value-added products to assisting with the design of a logo that brings more visibility to an existing product.

With a fuller awareness of its top-notch marine science resources, Carteret County, through the MSEP, is aggressively pursuing new avenues of growth that will have a positive effect on the area and its citizens. UNC-Chapel Hill’s office of economic development is helping the county leverage the partnership to promote economic development, attract new marine-related businesses to the county, and also nurture entrepreneurs and small businesses as part of the cluster.

UNC’s Jessie White notes that his office and the county are also exploring ways of boosting the local economy by expanding complementary industries, such as boat building, environmental tourism, heritage tourism, and the retirement industry. Naturally, the same characteristics that make Carteret County a perfect setting for oceanic institutions help it compete for businesses that consider quality of life an important factor in location decisions.

Inscoe says that if you “enjoy playing,” then his county is for you. He cites plentiful beaches, fishing, Cape Lookout National Seashore, 40 miles of Outer Banks, and a small town atmosphere with big town amenities as just a few of the many attractions that lure tourists to the area. With the establishment of the MSEP to help focus future recruiting and economic development efforts, it’s a good bet that increasing numbers of marine-related businesses will soon be seeking their own place in the Carteret County sun.