A noted local outdoor television producer and conservationist hopes a lawsuit set to be filed in less than 60 days will start a conversation to help push large fishing trawlers out of the Pamlico Sound and back into the ocean.
Winterville resident Joe Albea said he, some fellow recreational fishermen and guides and the North Carolina Coastal Fisheries Reform Group “didn’t have a choice” in seeking damages against a New Bern-based shrimp trawler, and against the state Division of Marine Fisheries. The suit is based on perceived violations of the Clean Water Act by Capt. Gaston LLC and in particular a boat called the Micah Bell, as well as the marine fisheries division for allowing the violations to occur.
More than specific damages being sought, which Albea said are still in discussion, the hope is to have what Albea said is a long overdue conversation between commercial fishermen and recreational anglers, who share the same waters in the Pamlico Sound on a daily basis. The contention is based on the amount of damage shrimp trawlers, especially large boats with large nets, do to the sound’s fish, animals and breeding grounds.
“We asked for a summit to discuss it,” Albea said in a phone conversation on Thursday about the impending suit, which was announced publicly on Monday. “It has to be discussed and it has to be addressed. If you don’t want to talk, we’ll see you in court.”
The recent announcement by the NCCFRG carried with it a diagram detailing two dozen instances since the passing of the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997 in which fisheries reform house bills, a senate bill, petitions and other commentary relating to reforming and/or improving the state’s depleted fish populations were either ignored or rejected by the state. Albea said the ‘97 law could have worked to effect a true change in direction of the state fishery, but the conversations stalled or never started and got tied into politics, Albea said, leaving lots of ideas and legislation dead in the water.
“Why now? We’ve been ignored up until now,” he said, noting that the lack of action since 1997 has come at the cost of many over-fished populations, specifically summer flounder, gray trout, croaker and spot.
Those fish which once thrived in the sound are now depleted and are primary sources of bycatch by shrimp trawlers, and the bycatch often is dumped back into the sound dead, furthering the damage.
Albea said the NCCFRG does not want to end commercial shrimp fishing, not even in the sound. He said the target of the impending suit is the big boats he says are intended for fishing the ocean immediately off the coast.
“All we’re after is to move the big, industrial-size trawlers out into the ocean where they belong,” he said. “We’re not trying to do away with trawling in the Pamlico Sound. Our intention is to move the big boats out. It’s overkill.”
The trawlers are not permitted to work on weekends, but Albea said they drag their nets almost constantly beginning on Sunday nights until the next weekend. He also noted the entire shrimp population in the sound eventually travels into the ocean if uninterrupted anyway, where the crustaceans grow larger and, according to Albea, more desirable for the market.
To that end, the intended lawsuit claims Capt. Gaston LLC and the Micah Bell disposes of “millions of pounds of dead juvenile finfish bycatch into North Carolina’s coastal waters each year. Excessive bycatch continues despite bycatch reduction trials and/or changes to trawling equipment. This disposal violates the Clean Water Act’s prohibition on ‘the discharge of any pollutant by any person.’
“In addition, these vessels, including the Micah Bell, dredge up and re-suspend massive quantities of sediment into the water during trawling activities, as described above. This activity and resulting sediment re-suspension also violate the Clean Water Act ... as well as the above-mentioned water quality standards.”
Also named in the suit as a potential defendant is the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.