Commercial fishing license fees are set to go up by 25 percent next month to fund the NC Division of Marine Fisheries' Observer Program. We explain the program and explore how the fee increase may affect local commercial fisherman.
To see an entire list of license increases and their effective dates, click: http://portal.ncdenr.org/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=91cc5776-e30f-43e7-b2a5-11cdb8a8c5a5&groupId=38337
Commercial fishing licenses pay for administering the license program, the commercial statistics program, and the 59 officer Marine Patrol- which is responsible for watching over 4,000 miles of coastline. But come March 1st, local fisherman will notice an increase of 25 percent in the cost for a commercial license. Chief of License and Statistics with the NC Division of Marine Fisheries Don Hesselman.
“The appropriations bill gave the Marine Fisheries the authority to increase permit fees, it gave the Marine Fisheries the authority to increase the fee for the limited entry license that we have, which is a license to land flounder, which is our winter trawl fishery.”
The appropriations bill also increased the fee for under dock oyster culture permits, striped bass commercial gear permits, and shellfish and crustacean inspection permits.
“The standard commercial fishing license which is one of about five or six licenses that allow fishermen to sell seafood currently runs $200. With the 25% increase, it will be $250. The $25 shellfish license, which is probably the second most common license we sell, is currently $25 and it’s going to go up to $31.15.”
The reason for the fee increases, approved by the General Assembly in the state budget, is to help fund the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries Observer program. The program collects at sea information about commercial and recreational catches by observing fishing, either onboard fisherman’s vessels or from a Division vessel operated in the vicinity of fishing activity. Chris Batsavage is the Protected Resources Section Chief.
“The division’s been doing at sea observer work for a long time for various fisheries and various regions. But the current observer program, under the Protected Resources Section has been in place since 2010.”
Batsavage says the primary responsibility for the last four years has been the gill net fishery. Gill netting is a common commercial fishing method, especially in estuarine waters, where vertical panels of net are set, and an unsuspecting fish swims into it, becoming entangled. While this is an effective way of fishing, gill nets have been known to trap the sea turtles, which are an endangered species. To allow the gill net fishery to continue along our coast, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued an incidental take permit. Batsavage says the permit allows a certain level of interactions with sea turtles, which are based on information collected through the observer program.
“So when we see a turtle, we record that and compare that to the amount of fishing activity that has taken place and were able to come up with estimates of sea turtle interactions during that time and that information is used to kind of track how many turtles have been caught in the fishery as a whole compared to how many turtles were allowed to have interactions within this fishery under the permit.
Observer coverage is a requirement of the state’s Sea Turtle Incidental Take Permit for the gill net fishery. Local commercial fisherman Perry Ellis has been in the business for 20 years. He uses gill nets to catch flounder and trout in Bogue Sound. Ellis says very rarely does he have interactions with sea turtles.
“they just get in the nets and we get ‘em out and go turn ‘em loose and they’re fine. But there is very seldom we ever get one. I think I’ve had three in the last 20 years, and they were just perfect when I got them out.”
All fishermen are required to keep track of sea turtle interactions. Information about fisheries that interact with Atlantic Sturgeon is also collected, as the National Marine Fisheries Service recently listed them as an endangered species. The information gathered through the observer program is used to develop fisheries management decisions, stock assessments, development of fishery management plans, and conservation of protected species.
Chris McCafferty, has been a commercial fisherman Morehead City for 30 years. He’s also the captain of the snapper and grouper vessel “Reel Job.” He believes the observer program is unnecessary and would rather see a stock assessment done to determine sea turtle populations.
"It’s impacting the commercial sector right now, the fees are going on us. But it’s something that really all fishermen need to realize that without the turtle stock assessment, it’s going to continue to affect one group after another. Including boaters, even some of the water front owners on the beach, once they start designating some of the areas as critical habitats, they can establish no wake zones, they can close down fisheries that have interactions with sea turtles. So what we need we need is for the public to push for a stock assessment on these turtles to show that they have recovered due in large part to the efforts of commercial fisherman that took some measures that really decreased the interactions with them.”
McCafferty says commercial fisherman avoid interactions with sea turtles because they can destroy fishing gear and can cause injury with their strong flippers and sharp beak. Come March 1st, all commercial fishermen will be required to pay the increased fee. But the observer program only pertains to approximately 800 North Carolina fishermen who use gill nets in inshore waters. Since the snapper and grouper fishery doesn’t use gill nets, McCafferty isn’t part of the observer program. But he’s still paying for it.
“It doesn’t sound like all that much but it is just another expense that is really hard with the fuel prices as high as it is, competing against foreign imports that have driven the price down for many of our products. It is getting harder to make it. It’s just another $50 dollars that you have to come up with before you go fishing.”
In response to the price changes, NC Division of Marine Fisheries Don Hesselman says three public comment meetings were held at the coast where commercial fisherman protested the fee increases.
“I think we’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. If we don’t fund the observer program, we’re going to have to close down the inshore gill net fishery. And that fishery, we estimate is worth about 5 million dollars worth of total economic impact of about 8 million dollars.”
Even though the license fee is increasing by 25 percent, Hesselman says the fee increases won’t be enough to cover the annual cost of the observer program, which is about 1.1 million dollars.
“These license fees, we estimate will bring in about a half a million dollars, a little bit over that.”
The Marine Fisheries Commission has the authority to issue more fee increases. In fact, Hesselman says they will most likely establish a 100 dollar gill net permit specifically for fishermen who want to use gill nets in inshore waters.
Both local commercial fishermen I spoke with said they don’t think the increased fees will impact the price of seafood. McCafferty says commercial fisherman will have to find some way to absorb the extra cost.
“Recreational and commercial fisherman really need to sit down and have a discussion about how we want to see our fishery managed. And do it so that all agree including how consumers benefit from it. That way you have a healthy resource we can pass on to the next generation.”
The Marine Fisheries Commission will discuss fee increases for permits and limited entry licenses at its February meeting. To see an entire list of license increases and their effective dates, go to publicradioeast.org and click on this story. For Public Radio East, I’m Jared Brumbaugh.