It’s that time of year again, when the outcome of legislation that affects our lives on the Outer Banks lies in the hands of lawmakers in Raleigh, who are rushing to pass bills so they can go home. Most of us don’t pay much attention to the legislative process. Even if we do, we wait until the churning stops, and see what we gained, and what we lost.
Right now, the Coastal Fisheries Conservation and Economic Development Act is sitting in the legislative version of a dark corner, maybe waiting to die. It’s not dead yet, but it’s a good bet that commercial fishermen hope it’s doomed.
“There is no one that I know of who’s read it who are not worried about it,” says Jeff Oden, a commercial long-liner from Hatteras.
House Bill 867, which is sponsored by Rep. Larry Yarborough, R-Person; Rep. John Bell IV, Wayne; Rep. Ted Davis Jr., R-New Hanover and Rep. Jay Adams, R-Catawba, would switch the focus of fisheries management from sustainability to conservation. But, according to Outer Banks Catch, it would take away watermen’s input into fisheries issues by eliminating the advisory committees required under the 1997 Fisheries Reform Act. It would also allow the state Marine Fisheries Commission to alone make changes to fisheries management plans.
The bill has the support of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce and NC Sound Economy, a nonprofit group that describes itself as “an expanding coalition of fishermen, business leaders and concerned citizens who seek to end the unproductive fights over a shrinking publicly owned economic resource.”
That sounds familiar.
“It’s essentially a CCA bill,” Oden says, referring to the Coastal Conservation Association, a recreational anglers nonprofit which has the same mission as NC Sound Economy. “It’s pretty obvious where it’s all heading. It’s going to go down the same path as the shrimp petition.”
In a controversial decision, the MRC earlier this year approved a petition to limit shrimp trawling, overruling five advisory committees that recommended against it.
Part of the controversy with trawling is over the issue with bycatch – fish caught while targeting another species - but Oden says the reason it’s a commercial fishing problem is because no one keeps track of it with recreational fishing.
“To them, it’s just catch and release,” he says. “They like to ignore the fact that there’s mortality.”
Fishermen say this recent bill is generated from the same anti-commercial fishing lobbying groups, which blame commercial fishing for decreases in fish stocks. By extension, commercial fishermen are condemned for using gear like trawl and gill nets.
“I call it the ‘so-called conservation bill,’ says Dewey Hemilright, a commercial fisherman from Kitty Hawk. “I’m not for the bill because I just know the makers of the bill and the backers of it . . . if they’re always anti-commercial fishing, there’s probably nothing good in it.”
The biggest problem with the proposed bill, says Glenn Skinner, the executive director of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, is that too much power would be handed to the Marine Fisheries Commission, which some believe has tilted in favor of recreational fishing.
“It more or less takes the checks and balances out of the system and gives the full authority to those nine members,” he says.
Skinner says he believes the bill is meant to prevent stakeholders like the Fisheries Association from challenging the commission in court, such as the lawsuit the association filed over southern flounder.
If it becomes law, he says, the bill would also allow reviews of fisheries plans every two years with new commission appointments, without the benefit of sound science.
“I just don’t see how you can possibly get good management that way,” Skinner says.
But maybe the Coastal Conservation Fisheries bill will never see the light of day – at least this year. People will just have to wait and see.