A proposed coastal fishing regulation designed to protect species is drawing sharp differences of opinion from some of those affected.
Some think the measure is necessary to prevent continued loss of important fish species.
Others think the measure won’t work as intended and could prove catastrophic for coastal fishing industries.
Tom Roller is a professional fishing guide in Beaufort who brings his clients to sounds, bays, inlets and creeks to cast for red drum, speckled sea trout, bluefish and Spanish mackerel.
But his bread and butter, he said, is Southern flounder.
“They are extremely important to my business, but we don’t catch Southerns like we used to because they aren’t here anymore,” he said. “They are an example of how to overfish something and not do anything.”
The recreational Southern flounder fishery is closed for the rest of the year since the catch exceeded its target defined by the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan.
Commercial landings of Southern flounder, according to the N.C. Wildlife Federation, have declined 88 percent over the past two decades. A landing is the amount of fish harvested at sea and brought to land.
In addition, other saltwater species that spawn in estuaries – a partially enclosed coastal body of water with a connection to the ocean — have experienced a similar decline, such as bluefish, 78 percent, spot, 94 percent, and Atlantic croaker, 85 percent.
These declines, said Louis Daniel, a marine scientist with the N.C. Wildlife Federation and former director of the N.C. Marine Fisheries Division, are casualties of commercial shrimp fishing operations in the nursery grounds of many of the species, such as flounder, which are in peril.
A large number of juvenile fish that migrate from spawning grounds in estuarine rivers to mature in fishing grounds — such as the Pamlico Sound, the state’s largest shrimp fishery – are unintentionally caught in shrimp trawls – funnel-shaped nets that are dragged to capture shrimp — before the fish are mature enough to reproduce. The same thing is happening with gill nets, net walls that hang vertically from fishing vessels.
Daniel estimates that for each pound of shrimp harvested, another 4 pounds of unwanted fish, called bycatch, perish.
“We are the only state from Maryland to Texas that trawls in nursery grounds,” Daniel said. “Once the juvenile fish enter the sound, trawlers go back and forth every day. It’s a rare (juvenile fish) that makes it from the inland nursing grounds through the sound during the trawling season and offshore to spawn.”
Researchers have raised the prospect that some species could eventually be extirpated from the fishery without action.
“This is the best example I know of the tragedy of the commons,” said Daniel. “We are the textbook tragedy.”
Daniel’s organization has created legislation, with support from the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, to urge action. Last spring, HB 483 — also known as the “Let ‘Em Spawn Before They are Gone” bill — passed the state House of Representatives in June by a 58-47 vote and was assigned to the Committee on Rules and Operation of the Senate. The bill will most likely be heard by the Senate in the 2020 short session.
David Sneed, the executive director of the CCANC, said inshore trawling has been a problem for “decades” and other states have banned or severely restricted the practice.
The last meaningful reform to the North Carolina coastal fishing practices was the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997. Sneed said that it’s a “pretty good document,” but it needs revision.
In 2017, conservationists led an unsuccessful attempt to update the 1997 legislation. This year, said Sneed, their strategy is to pursue a segment of the 2017 reform effort, which became the Let ‘Em Spawn bill. The bill establishes a minimum size limit for significant marine fisheries species to ensure that juvenile fish at the size limit have a 75 percent probability of reaching maturity and can therefore spawn at least once. This is what marine scientists refer to as L75.
“It’s a compromise, but it’s a small step in the right direction for fisheries reform,” he said.
A core part of their legislative strategy, said Tim Gestwicki, CEO of the N.C. Wildlife Federation, is to present fishery reform as a statewide issue.
“It’s not a coastal issue,” Gestwicki said. “This a statewide public trust resource issue. For many years, it has been left alone to the coastal legislators and the pressure they receive. So far, the commercial interests have won the day.”
In 2018, 9.7 million pounds of shrimp were harvested at a value of $20 million, which is 25.7 percent of all commercial finfish and shellfish harvested in North Carolina, according to the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries.
According to the N.C. Fisheries Association, the state has one of the nation’s “most rigorous legal and regulatory” management systems. The web of regulations, the association said, “stymies growth and creates unnecessary barriers.”
In September, Brent Fulcher, a fourth-generation shrimper spoke to CPP during a break from guiding tours during the N.C. Seafood Festival in Morehead City aboard his fishing vessel, the Micah Bell.
Fulcher is the chairman of the board of directors of the N.C. Fisheries Association Inc. and operates a fleet of 10 shrimp boats and two commercial seafood operations in Craven and Carteret counties. His businesses employ 40 and support roughly 200-300 independent commercial fishermen.
“I don’t think Let Em Spawn is the right way to manage (the fishery),” he said.
“We’re the ones that put in the two-day conservation limit. We are the ones that went to the drawing board and figured out how to limit some areas.
“If you look at a fisherman being a farmer of the sea, he’s got to make sure he’s doing certain things to promote growth for the next year. We rotate out of certain fisheries to allow that resource to be sustainable. There are so many things that this industry does that people don’t realize.”