Commercial fishermen gathered in New Bern recently to speak out against a proposal put forward by the North Carolina Wildlife Foundation that would close much of North Carolina's waters to shrimp trawling.
The waterscape of New Bern transformed early this week. More than a dozen shrimp trawlers pulled up to the New Bern waterfront at Union Point Park. Spectators gathered at the water’s edge to view the unusual display. The vessels served as a visual demonstration among commercial fishermen against a proposal that would close much of North Carolina’s coastal waters to shrimp trawling.
“Gordon Daniels, I live in Atlantic, North Carolina. I’m a commercial fisherman, seventh generation, been commercial fishing for over 40 years.”
Daniel’s 40 foot Harkers Island shrimping boat, the F/V Amy Carol is anchored only 100 feet away.
“They want to put the shrimp trawlers and commercial fishermen out of business. And we’re here to show support for the commercial fishermen, all commercial fishermen, to try and make the commission understand and deny the petition that they’re putting forward today.”
On November 2nd, the non-profit conservation group North Carolina Wildlife Federation submitted a petition to the Marine Fisheries Commission to designate all coastal fishing waters, including the ocean out to three miles, not otherwise designated as nursery areas as special secondary nursery areas. In addition, tow times would be limited to 45 minutes and only during the daytime.
As commercial fishermen drag their nets through the water for shrimp, fish are scooped up as well. CEO of the NC Wildlife Federation Tim Gestwicki says fishery stocks are diminishing because juvenile fish caught as bycatch aren’t able to reproduce.
“So the concern is over conservation of juvenile fish and working to get those fish to be afforded the age of spawn, let them get to maturity to where they’re spawning and therefore adding more fish to the stock for sustainability.”
He says the goal of the petition is to balance conservation efforts with current fisheries practices to mitigate the effects of bycatch.
“The petition for rulemaking proposal we submitted is simply to look at designating our nursery habitats for juvenile fish over the concern of the amount of bycatch and literally discard of dead fish that has been occurring in North Carolina estuarine waters for way too long.”
Bolstering populations of juvenile croaker, spot and weakfish he says would sustain the diversity of the ecosystem and contribute economically to commercial and recreational fishermen in the State. Even though the North Carolina Wildlife Federation points to the shrimping industry as the reason for the decline in juvenile fish, commercial fisherman Gordon Daniels says they’re not to blame.
“We have put fishing excluder devices in our nets and plus we put holes in our nets that are not even required. We cut holes in our nets to allow fish to escape. And we’ve reduced bycatch by over, almost 40 percent over the last few years. It’s not us affecting these fish species.”
President of the North Carolina Fisheries Association Jerry Schill agrees, citing studies from SeaGrant, the Division of Marine Fisheries and other academic institutions that show bycatch reduction devices are effective.
“And even now, we have a workgroup that is charged with reducing bycatch even further. So what’s your reward for being successful, a petition for rulemaking that would devastate the industry? And that’s what’s so disheartening about the whole process.”
North Carolina was the first state to require bycatch reduction devices. Under the petition, two BRDs would be required on all trawl nets used in coastal fishing waters.
At 11 o’clock on Tuesday, a second floor room inside the New Bern Riverfront Convention Center filled with around 200 commercial fishermen and people opposed to the petition gathered in solidarity to pray. Schill says if the proposal is approved, it would impose more regulations on an already highly regulated industry, and would make it difficult for commercial shrimpers to stay in business.
“This is not a ban on shrimping. Technically. But in a couple of years, you find out that there’s no more shrimping in North Carolina because they can’t make money.”
If the shrimping industry starts to disappear, Schill fears it could have widespread economic repercussions across coastal North Carolina.
“And then you start losing your infrastructure, the packers that head the shrimp and grade the shrimp. And when they start going by the wayside, then you start losing your dock facilities because the fish packers sell their property to some condo guys. So it’s far reaching in that regard.”
The petition for rule change recommends limiting trawling in special secondary nursery areas in internal coastal waters to three days per week. Trawling in the Atlantic Ocean would be allowed four days per week. Maximum headrope length would be reduced from the current 220 feet to 90 feet in all inshore waters and 110 feet in the ocean. Tim Gestwicki of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation says the proposed changes could benefit fishermen in the long run by bolstering fish stocks and increasing catch size.
“We’ve seen that in other places up and down the Atlantic East Coast where these rules if you will are in place and certainly the fishing industry is alive and well.”
But not everyone is buying it.
“I think it’s a bunch of (explicate) myself. You can edit that out.”
Adam Tyler is from Smyrna
“These boys don’t do no harm. I’m a commercial fisherman myself, I’ve worked the water almost all my life and I’ve worked around this crowd and they ain’t doing nothing wrong.”
Tyler was in New Bern for the public comment meeting held by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.
“It will devastate the industry. It’ll cut the shrimping down. These boys have a hard enough time making it as it is. When you add up the fuel, the gear, the maintenance and you eliminate two or three days out of anybody’s work week, how are they going to make it?”
By 12:30, more than a thousand people gathered in the ballroom of the convention center. It was a standing room only crowd as five advisory committees to the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission met to discuss the petition and take comments from the public. So many people were opposed to the petition that the chairman had to stop the hearing with some 60 people still on the list to speak.
Commercial shrimper Allen Krelie works on the fishing vessel Jane Carolyn out of Lowland. He says the Pamlico Sound is their primary spot for trawling.
“That’s where the shrimp are, that’s where they’ve been. They’re trying to say that we’re killing the bottom, killing the fisheries and we ain’t killing nothing. The fish are moving north. The weather’s changing. They’ve got reports, records of all the fish that were in the sound five years ago. They’re all north, plentiful you know what I’m saying.”
Even with finfish extruder devices, Krielie says they do catch fish in their nets as bycatch.
“Throw it back over, it’s alive when we throw it back over, push it right over. Take the shrimp out, push the shrimp over. Ain’t hurting nothing.”
North Carolina Wildlife Federation CEO Tim Gestwicki argues that smaller fish species often don’t survive the experience.
“When you’re hauling and trawling and leaving your nets in the water for hours, those fish are dead. So when they’re talking about bycatch, the vast majority of these juvenile hundreds of millions of fish over the course of the year are thrown over as dead wasted fish. They are not surviving and therefore provide no value to North Carolinians at all.”
It seems ideas on fisheries practices will always differ among conservationist and commercial fishermen, but the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries will have the final say-so. After the meeting, five advisory committees to the Division of Marine Fisheries announced that they rejected the proposal. The final verdict won’t come until the Commission discusses and votes on the petition at their February 15th and 16th business meeting in Wilmington.
UPDATE: The North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission has extended the deadline for public comment on the NC Wildlife Federation proposal. Written comments can be submitted to NCWFPetition@ncdenr.gov or
Marine Fisheries Commission Office
N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries
PO Box 769
Morehead City, N.C. 28557