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By Peter Vankevich
The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries Commission (DMF) voted in Wilmington yesterday (Feb. 16) to approve a petition by the N.C. Wildlife Federation that would drastically restrict shrimp trawling in North Carolina coastal waters. The vote was five to three with one abstention.
This vote won’t affect shrimp fishermen immediately, but if this rule–or parts of it–goes into effect, several hurdles will be necessary to clear, including legal compliance issues and an economic impact study, which could take up to two years before any implementation.
The restrictions in the petition, which include limiting shrimping to three days per week, designating all coastal fishing waters not otherwise designated as nursery areas (including the Atlantic Ocean out to three miles from shore) as special secondary nursery areas; and defining the type of shrimping gear and how it may be used, were widely opposed by the commercial fishing industry, fish houses, restaurants and the Hyde County commissioners who in their January monthly meeting had unanimously approved a resolution opposing it. An extended public comment period preceded the DMF’s vote.
Hyde County’s resolution notes that shrimp trawlers are small, family-owned businesses that sell to seafood dealers, which benefits the local economy—both on the mainland and Ocracoke. The fear is that these changes will force shrimp trawlers out of business.
Hyde County manager Bill Rich, who attended the two-day meeting, voiced his disappointment.
“I’m still in shock about it,” he said. “I can’t believe that they voted on it after what I heard here and earlier in New Bern. There was a wonderful presentation on why the petition was flawed and it was completely ignored. I knew there were three votes, but there were two commissioners that didn’t say one word during the two days and they voted for the petition.”
Even with yesterday’s vote, Rich was skeptical that it would be implemented.
“I don’t believe the petition will be enacted in its present form, but there may be new rules and regulations that will come out of it,” he said.
Ocracoke’s county commissioner, Tom Pahl, echoed Rich’s sentiment.
“It’s terrible; extremely disappointing,” he said. “I attended the public hearing (Jan. 17) in New Bern and all five advisories committees were against it, and I think they were irresponsible in not taking their advice.”
In Pahl’s testimony last month, he noted:
“Bycatch reduction is the issue here, and it is a legitimate concern,” he said. “Again, no one thinks this is a bad idea, but don’t destroy a whole division of the North Carolina commercial fishing business when there are viable options yet to be implemented.”
The DMF is responsible for the stewardship of the state’s marine and estuarine resources. Its jurisdiction encompasses all coastal waters and extends to three miles offshore. Agency policies are established by the nine-member Marine Fisheries Commission and the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality. North Carolina is a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
Voting for the petition were Mark Gorges, Brad Koury, Chuck Laughridge, Rick Smith, Mike Wicke. Opposing it were Sammy Corbett, chairman, Janet Rose and Alison Willis. Joe Shute abstained.
The petition, filed by the N.C. Wildlife Federation, was supported by N.C. Coastal Conservation Association, which describes itself as a community of recreational anglers working to protect our marine resources for future generations to experience and enjoy.
The petition proposes expanding special secondary nurseries that are essential to juvenile development for numerous recreational and commercially valuable species in North Carolina waters, especially citing weakfish, spot and Atlantic croaker. According to the petition, it is estimated that for every pound of shrimp harvested in North Carolina waters more than four pounds of non-target catch, including juvenile fin fish, are discarded.
Sadness was part of this meeting. Jimmy Nobles, who owned a seafood market in Greenville, collapsed soon after giving an impassioned speech against the petition and later died of a heart attack.
Megan Spencer, of Ocracoke and who hails from generations of Hyde County watermen, attended the meeting and has been an activist in opposing the restrictions, including creating an online petition on change.org that drew more than 7,500 supporters.
“I found it disheartening,” she said. “There was not one shred of economic evidence as what the damage this petition would do.”
N.C. Catch, a group that focuses on educating consumers on the importance of buying local seafood and which supports commercial fishing, said this petition process will be a long haul.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint, and everyone will need to remain engaged on this issue for the duration of the rulemaking process,” it posted on its Facebook page.