The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission voted February 16th to grant a petition for rulemaking and began drafting rules to implement it. If adopted, the rules will limit shrimp trawling in most North Carolina waters.
According to the Division of Marine Fisheries, shrimp are the second most economically important fishery in North Carolina. In communities like Englehard, Lowland, Hobucken and Down East Carteret County, many commercial fishermen make their living trawling for shrimp in the Pamlico Sound. That’s why a petition to reclassify most internal waters is a contentious topic right now.
At a public hearing last Thursday in Wilmington, the North Carolina Fisheries Commission voted 5-3 to grant a petition for rulemaking that if adopted would limit shrimp trawling in most North Carolina waters. Proponents say the changes would greatly reduce bycatch and help bolster populations of commercially valuable finfish. Those against the measure say it will raise the price of locally caught shrimp and could decimate the shrimping industry in North Carolina. Jerry Schill is the President of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, a nonprofit organization that lobbies local, state and federal policymakers on behalf of commercial fishermen.
“It was not surprising to us but it was very disappointing after you come off an advisory committee meeting in New Bern where the five advisory committees votes overwhelmingly to recommend that the Commission reject the petition or deny the petition. And they went ahead and accepted it anyway which was very disappointing.”
The petition, submitted on November 2nd by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, and modified on January 12th asks the commission to designate 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. It also seeks to establish clear criteria for the opening of shrimp season and define the type of gear and how and when gear may be used in special secondary nursery areas during shrimp season. Since the meeting, advisor with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation David Knight says he’s received a positive response from people who feel the recommendations are a step the right direction.
“North Carolina’s management of its marine fisheries has been status quo for a long time. And while other states modernize their management practices, upgraded their management practices, North Carolina has not.”
Knight says their goal with the petition requests is to reduce the amount of juvenile fish that are caught as bycatch as commercial fishermen drag their nets through the water. Increasing the populations of croaker, spot and weakfish would benefit commercial and recreational fishermen as well as help improve the diversity of the ecosystem.
“Change is hard, and moving away from status quo is difficult and we understand that. But the hundreds of millions of juvenile fish that we’re losing each year to shrimp trawling, we believe the majority of people in North Carolina believe that we need to change our management system and change our management style and make it more in line with what other states have done.”
Knight says the requests outlined in the proposal are not meant to shut down the shrimping industry in the state adding their trying to balance conservation efforts with the shrimping industry’s needs.
“Even with these recommendations that the Wildlife Federation put forward, we would still be the most lenient state in the southeast coast and Gulf Coast when it comes to shrimp trawling.”
Even though the petition doesn’t seek to ban shrimping from taking place, North Carolina Fisheries Association President Jerry Schill says it would cut the industry by 60 to 70 percent. Fewer fishermen operating would drive up the price of locally caught shrimp.
“It no longer makes it economically feasible for some of the fish buyers or shrimp buyers to invest in the infrastructure. And some of your smaller boats won’t have docking facilitates anymore.”
With commercial fishermen having to navigate more stringent restrictions limiting where, when and how shrimp can be caught, Schill says the supply of local shrimp would dwindle.
“So the immediate affect would be if the supply was diminished, than it would be replaced with foreign imports and I don’t think the folks in eastern North Carolina and the tourist that come here would put up with that for long.”
On the other hand, David Knight with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation says they believe the proposed regulations, if approved, would have little to no negative effects, and could actually yield some gains for the shrimping industry.
“One of the recommendations is for a, basically to have a size of the shrimp before the season opens. For the shrimp to get to a certain size. That adds value to the shrimp in terms of the fishermen and adds quality to the shrimp as well. So if folks are looking for North Carolina caught shrimp, there will still be plenty of that out there.”
Knight adds the commercial fishing industry as a whole would benefit from the change in shrimping regulations because of the reduction in bycatch. Commercially valuable finfish would become more plentiful.
These issues as well as the economic impact of the requests outlined in the petition will be examined further as the North Carolina Fisheries Commission continues their rulemaking process. Public Information officer for the Division of Marine Fisheries Patricia Smith says the development of a fiscal note is required before a notice of text for the proposed rules can be published in the North Carolina Register.
“If it is found that the economic impact would be in excess of a million dollars, it’s going to require regulatory impact analysis. And we do anticipate that the economic impact would be in excess of a million dollars.”
That process could take more than a year to complete, and must be approved by the Office of State Budget and Management and the commission before the notice of text can be published. Then, Smith says a public comment period and hearing will be held before they can consider final adoption of the rules.
“Some of the proposed rules may require modification of existing fisheries management plans before they can be adopted. It’s kind of unclear now exactly how the rules and the fisheries management plan are going to play in with each other.”
If the commission adopts the rules, they go before the state Rules Review Commission for approval before taking effect. However, if the state receives 10 letters of objection, the issue will automatically move to the legislature. David Knight with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation says they will work with the state to make sure the shrimping regulations take effect.
“We look forward to working with the commission and with the stakeholders and the public moving forward in this rulemaking process, and if there needs to be some tweaks or some small changes, we’re willing to have that conversation.”
On the other side of the debate, North Carolina Fisheries Association President Jerry Schill says they are focusing on educating the public and commercial fishermen on the rulemaking process.
“A lot of people, fishermen and others, when are you going to sue? Well, it’s premature to do that. They didn’t actually adopt rules, they just adopted a process so it’s premature to do litigation but there’s a lot of other things that can be done including getting the public to understand what the issue is in taking shrimp off their table.”
For more information on the North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s proposal and the rulemaking process, go to our website www.publicradioeast.org.