By JOY CRIST
On Thursday, February 16, the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission voted to pursue a petition that would limit how, where and when shrimpers could operate. If adopted, the ensuing rules will limit shrimp trawling in most North Carolina waters, per a press release from the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF).
The shrimping petition is an issue that’s been incredibly contentious for fishermen from all across coastal North Carolina since first coming to the surface in November, and this latest development has the potential to have severe state-wide impacts according to the many opponents of the regulations.
Here’s a break-down of what the petition entails, what comes next, and the strong concerns that local and state-wide fishermen have about the new regulations, as well as the process that led to the February 16 approval in the first place.
What’s in the Petition?
The petition asked 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, 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.
Specific requests of the petition include:
- Limiting shrimp trawling to three days a week in the estuaries and four days a week in the ocean.
- Limiting trawling to the daytime only.
- Reducing the maximum trawl head rope length to 90 feet in estuarine waters and 110 feet in ocean.
- Limiting tow times to 45 minutes.
- Opening shrimp season once the shrimp count in Pamlico Sound reaches 60 shrimp per pound, heads on.
- Implementing an 8-inch size limit for spot and a 10-inch size limit for Atlantic croaker.
- Requiring all fishermen to use two N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries-certified bycatch reduction devices when trawling in state waters.
What’s Next in the Process?
The petition was originally submitted in November 2016 by the N.C. Wildlife Federation and this approval means that an extensive rulemaking process will commence in order to adopt the proposed regulations.
Per the NCDMF, the North Carolina Administrative Procedure Act requires the development of a fiscal note before a notice of text for the proposed rules can be published in the North Carolina Register. For proposed rules that have an economic impact in excess of $1 million, a regulatory impact analysis must be prepared.
The development of a regulatory impact analysis could take more than a year, and must be approved by the Office of State Budget and Management and the commission before the notice of text can be published. Once the notice of text is published, the commission must hold a comment period, and likely a public hearing, before the commission can consider final adoption of the rules. Some of the proposed rules might require the modification of existing fishery management plans before they can be adopted.
If the commission adopts the rules, they then go before the state Rules Review Commission for approval before becoming effective. However, if the state receives 10 letters of objection, the issue will automatically move to the legislature.
In other words, there is still a ways to go before these new regulations go into effect.
What’s the Problem with the Petition?
The shrimping petition is causing alarm for coastal residents all across the state, and not just because of the strict restrictions themselves – (though that’s certainly an overwhelming part.)
Jeff Oden has been a Hatteras commercial fishermen for more than 40 years, and has deep ties to the island that literally spans the centuries. His great, great grandfather was shipwrecked on the island twice, (and decided to stick around and marry a native the second time around), while his grandfather ran a fish house on Hatteras Island.
While Jeff is a longlining commercial fishermen, the new shrimping restrictions do have an indirect effect on his business, and especially the Hatteras Island community in general.
“It’s going to affect the communities, and sadly and more importantly, it’s going to affect future participation in the process.”
Simply put, this was not a popular petition from the get go and many people feel their voices were not heard.
An estimated 1,000 people attended a meeting in January to speak out against the bill at the New Bern Convention Center. The crowd included fishermen, shrimpers, and owners of seafood-based businesses who addressed a panel of advisory committee members who would later report their recommendations to the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission.
The meeting lasted for 7.5 hours, and there were so many people who spoke against the petition, that the chairman of the panel had to end the hearing while there was still an estimated 60 people waiting to speak.
The five individual advisory committees — Finfish, Shellfish/Crustacean, Habitat and Water Quality, Northern Regional, and Southern Regional — all voted by a high majority to deny the petition per a New Bern Sun Journal article that covered the heavily debated meeting.
Citing reasons that ranged from flawed science to a “serious lack of knowledge of the actual conduct of North Carolina’s shrimp trawl fishery and its management by the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission and Division of Marine Fisheries,” (per the Habitat and Water Quality advisory Committee), the committees presented their recommendations to deny the petition before the February 16 commission vote.
And the commission voted to move ahead with the petition anyways.
“The Fisheries Reform Act from years ago was supposed to deal with this process so we would have an even hand,” said Oden. “But we had a super majority [by the commission] for this vote.”
The NC Marine Fisheries voted 5 to 3 with one abstention to approve the rulemaking petition and set the future restrictions in motion.
“The commenters and advisory panels [were against this],” said Dewey Hemilright, a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and an Outer Banks commercial fishermen for roughly 30 years. “And you would like to think [that the council] would listen to public comments. But when you’re driven in a direction with a perceived action, your mind is made up. This is an agenda driven petition, plain and simple.”
Both Oden and Hemilright are concerned that the dismissal of both the advisory committees’ recommendations and the vocal public opposition will result in less participation from the public in the rulemaking process in the future.
“84% of the advisory panel came out against this petition and ironically it was still accepted, completely overriding the advisory panel,” added Oden. “Who wants to be a part of the advisory panel if the commission is going to ignore this input? Who wants to be a part of this process?”
“I would be very surprised to see any people stepping up to the plate hereafter. I hope I’m wrong because we definitely need to be there swinging regardless.”
And a lack of public participation could easily be a devastating blow for commercial fishermen, who are already playing whack-a-mole with numerous fishing restrictions and threats to their fishing grounds year after year.
At a public meeting regarding a proposed expansion of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary in early 2016, (yet another potential hurdle for commercial fishermen), Oden outlined how the industry had changed in 40 years.
When he first started fishing, all he needed was a boat and a fishing license. Today, there’s a long list of steps that need to be taken to do his job.
He is required to schedule an observer five days in advance, install two cameras, call in three hours before returning to port, fill out a log book of multiple forms “each time I spin my reel,” retrieve the video cartridges from the two cameras and mail them in at his own expense, and finally, fill out two more log books on discards, and the economics of the trip. And this list scratches the surface and does not even take into account size, timing, and area restrictions.
“We keep trying to fight the good fight, because we’re just stubborn,” said Oden. “There’s a whole lot of losing in what we do, and it seems like on a good day, we just don’t lose very much.”
And while Oden isn’t directly affected by the proposed restrictions as a longliner, he notes that the restrictions could easily hurt the island economy – (and the island landscape that attracts visitors in the first place) – from the ground up.
“This is going to affect Hatteras village every day, as well as every other place along the coastline,” said Oden. “People are thrilled to get local product, and while Hatteras will be [directly] affected less than, say, Wanchese, our access to shrimp will be hurt. People come here for the fresh seafood, not the crap shrimp coming from China, Indonesia, and who knows where.”
Oden knows all about the allure of fresh seafood to coastal NC visitors first hand. His family owned the Seagull Motel for decades, and they spoke with countless vacationers who visited Hatteras Village.
“There’s one thing people valued when they came down, and that’s fresh seafood,” he said. “They came to the motel for the beach, or to go fishing offshore for the day, and inevitably people would end up in the office with one question – ‘Where can I get fresh local seafood?’ So this is going to be far more reaching than just the economic harm to the [fishing] individuals who are being put out of business.”
“This will also have a trickle-down effect up and down the coast,” he added, “with the fish houses, the restaurants, and the consumers who want to eat local seafood…When you start losing fish houses, that’s it. Believe me, it’s going to be a long time before we sort out all the fallout from this one measure.”
Oden hopes the new administration will be more accommodating and responsive to the voices of the commercial fishermen, but for now, the process remains deeply troublesome.
“That, to me, is one of the hardest things to watch – a planned itinerary and agenda [that can] destroy the industry if this measure comes to pass,” he said.
And despite reeling from recent setbacks, Oden and other fishermen across the state intend to remain active and keep pushing, regardless of the outcome.
“I don’t know why we do it, but again, we just keep hoping,” he adds. “In my case, I’ve been sticking with it because I enjoy what I’ve done for the last 40 years, and I’m trying to give something back.”