A Primer on the Commercial Fishing License Issue - Shooting The Breeze


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A Primer on the Commercial Fishing License Issue

Thursday 08 February 2018 at 6:19 pm.


On February 14 and 15, the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission will meet in Wrightsville Beach to discuss a range of topics, including proposed changes to eligibility requirements for commercial fishing licenses.

This issue has local fishermen on the edge of their seat – a position they are unfortunately somewhat familiar with due to varying restrictions proposed or implemented over the years – and many attest that a potential license change will noticeably affect our own local fishing industry for the worst.

But if you haven’t been following the topic since the issue first surfaced in November, then there may be some lingering questions.

What are the changes they are talking about? Why does this affect the public? And what happens next?

So to get all of our readers in the loop, here’s an overview of the issue, and a few answers to some of those frequently asked questions.

How did this issue come to fruition?

In a November meeting of the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission in Kitty Hawk, member Chuck Laughridge made a motion for the commission to “develop a definition of a commercial fisherman.” An ad hoc committee of three commission members later met to hammer out the proposed standards, and the ensuing recommendations from the committee will be presented to the full commission at its Feb. 14-15 meeting in Wrightsville Beach.

What are the proposed changes to commercial fishing licenses?

Per the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission, the recommended requirements for holding a Standard Commercial Fishing License are as follows:

  • Must have 50 percent of earned income from the Trip Ticket Program as in the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997.
  • A fisherman must have 36 trip tickets per year.
  • To address crew issues for those who do not have trip tickets, but are bona fide commercial fishermen as crew or any commercial fishing interest in North Carolina or outside the state, proof of income of $10,000 or more per year. The proof of income should come from a commercial fishing operation, business, etc. doing business in North Carolina.

(The commission can decide if items 1, 2 and 3 are stand alone or a combination thereof.)

  • Inactive Standard Commercial Fishing Licenses that do not have any of the above with a three-year running average, would go back into a special pool and these licenses may be reissued to the original holder subject to commitment to 1, 2 and/or 3 above without going through the Eligibility Pool.Create a Heritage Standard
  • Commercial Fishing License that families may want to maintain that are inactive. The license may be maintained for $100 per year and may be reissued one time to a family member without going through the Eligibility Pool or any of the 1, 2 and 3 requirements listed above. If the reissuance of the license is not wanted, a one-time fee of $100 will retire that license number.

Any proposals approved at the upcoming meeting would require legislative approval as well.

So what’s the problem?

Since we first started covering this issue in January, we’ve heard, read and seen a number of arguments against the proposed license change that – (in our opinion anyways) - are based in good old fashioned common sense.

This question of “defining a commercial fishermen” was already hashed out in 2010 where it was determined that “there was no real need to modify the definition.” The proposals potentially hurt part-timers who fish in the winter months, are on the verge of retiring, or who don’t make a ton of money. And for the local commercial fishing industry, many anglers have said that “it’s another nail in a coffin that is already full of nails.”

It’s the watermen – the ones who are directly affected – that explain the potential fallout the best, and I won’t try to recreate their already eloquently stated arguments.

What I can do is share this letter to that was sent to Sammy Corbett, Chairman of the NC Marine Fisheries Commission, on February 1 from the North Carolina Watermen United (NCWU), as it sums up the problems with the proposed changes better than I could.

“Dear Chairman Corbett,

The North Carolina Watermen United (NCWU) is opposed to the changes in the definition of a commercial fishermen that are being considered at the NCMFC Meeting in February 2018.

The proposed changes are

  • Must have at least $10,000 in annual sales
  • Must have at least 50% of earned income from commercial sales
  • Must have at least 36 trip tickets per year.

The commercial fisherman must meet all of these criteria or will not be allowed to renew his/her license. If the NC Marine Fisheries Commission approves these recommendations at the February meeting, and the General Assembly approves them in Raleigh, the impacts on coastal communities will be profound.

This proposal raises a number of troubling questions –

  1. Why are we redefining who can be a commercial fisherman? What exactly will be improved?
  2. Are the existing commercial catch limits and restrictions, determined by stock assessments, tied to this proposal? NO!
  3. Will the Division of Marine Fisheries revenues go up? NO! They will actually decrease by at least $1.6 Million from the loss of sales of the 4,000 inactive licenses.
  4. Will these proposed changes create greater economic diversity in coastal communities? NO! Have you ever heard an Economist or Financial Advisor argue against economic diversification?
  5. Will the loss of family income from “part-time” fishermen increase state income tax revenues? NO!
  6. Will the charter/headboat industry be strengthened? NO! It will lose skilled crew, who presently commercial fish during non-tourist months, because they will lose annual commercial fishing income because of the 50% requirement.
  7. Does anyone – ANYONE – believe that this is being proposed with the hope of increasing commercial fishing activity by forcing the use of the 4,000 inactive licenses? NO!
  8. Are there any other licenses issued in any other professions in North Carolina that come with such “Use It or Lose It” restrictions?

In reflecting on the above questions, one is led to try to identify specific examples of financial damage or benefit that might actually occur in our coastal communities if these proposals become law. The most obvious major question is –


You cannot find an economist who argues against it. You cannot find a financial advisor who advises his/her clients against it. So, what is going on? You do not need a degree from the Wharton School of Business to know that you do not “Put all your eggs in one basket.”

The very nature of barrier islands and other coastal fishing communities has historically made economic diversification a challenge. Tourism has changed that somewhat. However, in the immediate aftermath of a major storm, tourism grinds to a halt because of infrastructure damage. Fortunately, one part of our economy can still function as our commercial fishermen go back to work the next day, and, in so doing, provide some immediate help for the local economy. Do we really need to reduce that effort?

So, what are some of the socio/economic consequences that will result from the proposed “re-definition” of a commercial fisherman, so as to eliminate part-time commercial fishermen?

Who will experience negative economic consequences? In no particular order –

  1. Marinas that sell fuel
  2. Marine mechanics and maintenance/repair parts’ stores
  3. Charter boats that commercial fish for king mackerel in the late fall when charter business slows down (Less than 36 trips or 50% income.)
  4. No fresh bait at tackle shops. (Bait is caught by part-time cast-netters.)
  5. Part-time fishermen who provide tackle shop bait.
  6. The NC Division of Marine Fisheries, previously mentioned above, will lose $1.6. million from lost license sales.
  7. Those so called part-time individuals who fish on their days off from their “regular” jobs to increase the family income.
  8. Charter/headboat crew members who commercial fish in the off season, but do not make 50% of their earned income from commercial sales.
  9. Wholesale fish houses (Lower volume equals lower income and fewer employees.)
  10. Wintertime businesses in coastal towns and villages. (Newsflash! Tourism goes way down in the winter). Is the suggestion from the MFC to be that barrier island and coastal villages become places for summer dwellers only?
  11. Fish truck drivers who make fewer deliveries.
  12. Old-timers who have spent a lifetime commercial fishing and are now in the twilight of their years. Should they be told by the MFC, “You are not working hard enough to qualify for a license, so we are putting you out to pasture. Enjoy the rest of your life.” Would the NCMFC really do this?The young people of coastal communities who will be forced to leave without their additional “part-time” fishing income. As towns slowly but surely become ghost towns or summer only resorts the not-so-obvious impacts will be felt throughout communities where commercial fishermen live. What will happen to the –

Volunteer fire departments?

The local hardware store?

The gas station?

Local churches?

The Post Office with reduced mail volume?

The corner grocery?

The list goes on and will vary community by community- the only certainty is that our coastal communities will be change, NEGATIVELY, forever.

Knowing that the social fabric of entire communities will fray as various household incomes decrease and consequently, some bills will not be paid, and some families will be forced to move away, is a sad and difficult future to contemplate.

The certainty that the general sense of well-being throughout entire communities will be diminished in ways, both large and small, if the NCMFC proposal becomes law - is beyond dispute.

One can look at the above, non-inclusive list and be left with one burning question – WHY?

The Board of Directors of the North Carolina Watermen (NCWU) submits our unanimous opposition to the NCMFC proposal to redefine a commercial fisherman.

Perry Wood Beasley, Columbia, President, NCWU
Andrew Berry Manteo, Vice-President, NCWU
Greg Mayer, Vice-President, NCWU, Kill Devil Hills
Capt. Sonny Davis, Atlantic Beach
Ernie Doshier, Ocracoke
Ernie Foster, Hatteras Village
Tom Harper, Hatteras Village
Glen Hopkins, Manteo
Billy Maxwell, Manteo
Jamie Reibel, Manteo
Britt Shackelford, Wanchese
Duke Spencer, Manteo
Rom Whitaker, Hatteras Village “

What can be done?

The deadline for submitting written comments to the commission is Feb. 9, so there is still time to sneak in a written comment under the wire. Comments can be emailed to CommercialLicensesComments@ncdenr.gov.

There will also be a public comment period at the meeting in Wrightsville Beach itself, which will be held at 6 p.m. on Feb. 14.

During the comment period, the chairman will allow each speaker to comment for up to three minutes, and those who wish to forego this process and give handouts to the commission during the public comment period should bring at least 12 copies of the handout. No other public comment period is slated for this meeting.

We’ll know in a week where to go from here – as any approved recommendations will still need to be acted upon by the state legislature – but for now, fishermen are holding their breath and waiting to see if their livelihoods will change.

As Captain Ernie Foster said in a wonderful recent article by Catherine Kozac, “The consequences of this for the present and future generations are very significant. And there are no benefits to be derived.”

four comments


As a recreational fisherman, I fail to see any benefits to the proposed changes. The only change I see coming from this is an increase in the catch by the commercial fisherman. Many will be forced to increase their catch to maintain their license. Is that what our new Govenor’s administration wants?

Fishhook - 09-02-’18 16:21

And, of course, the change will also lead to a decrease in the number of commercial fisherman. Using your same logic, a decrease in recreational fishermen and an increase in recreational regulations would lead to an increase the number of commercial fishermen and their catches. Is that what you had in mind?

pussycat - 09-02-’18 21:48
Ray Brown

I am a recreational fisherman. I am a stakeholder like every other citizen of NC. We all share in the resource equally and collectively and in doing so we have rights to know what the other does.

The Outer Banks Catch people have the best definition of a commercial fisherman and it is a recent one. It simply says that a commercial fisherman is someone who harvests fish and puts them in commerce chains. I agree.

The state does need to know how much is being harvested however, and uses the trip ticket program to monitor all sales. When over 60% of those who hold a commercial fishing license do not sell any fish, or meet the basic definition that Outer Banks Catch puts forth then none of your argument holds water.

If they are not harvesting fish to sell, then they aren’t involved in a commercial activity and aren’t buying fuel, they aren’t hiring mechanics, they aren’t providing baits, they aren’t doing any of the things you mention that commercial fishermen would be doing. I understand the dual income from the water in terms of running guide or charter boats part of the year and commercial fishing other times, or working on an offshore boat and the MFC is working to make sure those people have both sources of income counted as long as they can prove it. That’s just common sense.

People who use the water for legitimate commerce would have nothing to fear here because they can document what they are doing. If they can’t document that they are really fishing for money…then what are they doing?

It was never the intention of the state to let recreational anglers buy a commercial fishing license so they could avoid creel limits or set nets. If a rec wants to use a net he/she can buy a RCGL.

The idea that the state needs the revenue from these phantom commercial fishermen should be a slap in the face to every tax payer advocate in the area, because that fact points out that the state is wastefully funding a division that is truly not as big as it appears.

Again….if there is nothing to hide within such a simple definition, then why are so many opposed to proving they are commercial fishermen? My guess, is that many can’t, but want unlimited recreational harvests.

And while we are at it, we need to put minimums of several thousand dollars fines on those who violate the law by selling, or buying fish, from unlicensed fishermen. Fish in NC can not be used to pay for things or to barter, meaning any rec fisherman on a charter boat who gives fish to a mate as a tip is violating the law as it exist and the mate is violating the law for accepting it.

Those laws are old and often ignored, but there is a purpose for their existence.

While you are worried about the definition of a commercial fisherman, how much time have you spent worrying about the condition of fish stocks managed by the state of NC? Most are not as healthy as they once were, but that doesn’t seem to be your focus. You focus on making sure harvest can continue by anyone who has a couple thousand dollars to buy a license and then you don’t seem to care what they do with the fish they use that gear to catch. If you did, you’d want to know who they were, how much and what they caught, and what they did with what they caught.

That’s what the state wants…and that is what most citizens want. Accountability of the use of the resource, not unlike accountability of tax dollars because both are public trust resources and should not be hidden from view to anyone.

Ray Brown - 09-02-’18 22:02

Ray the state doesn’t have a clue what the recreational fishermen catches despite the recreational survey. In addition the bycatch by recreational fishermen is unknown, all the bait used to catch fish should be considered as bycatch. A lot of that bait ends up in dumpsters or gulls stomachs.

Concerned - 28-02-’18 03:14

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