Two shrimp trawlers are docked at Beaufort Inlet. Some are concerned that the loss of fish to the bycatch from trawlers has damaged populations of some species along North Carolina's coast. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

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A proposed coastal fishing regulation designed to protect species is drawing sharp differences of opinion from some of those affected.

Some think the measure is necessary to prevent continued loss of important fish species.

Others think the measure won’t work as intended and could prove catastrophic for coastal fishing industries.

The fish that aren’t here anymore

Tom Roller is a professional fishing guide in Beaufort who brings his clients to sounds, bays, inlets and creeks to cast for red drum, speckled sea trout, bluefish and Spanish mackerel.

But his bread and butter, he said, is Southern flounder.

“They are extremely important to my business, but we don’t catch Southerns like we used to because they aren’t here anymore,” he said. “They are an example of how to overfish something and not do anything.”

The recreational Southern flounder fishery is closed for the rest of the year since the catch exceeded its target defined by the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan.

Commercial landings of Southern flounder, according to the N.C. Wildlife Federation, have declined 88 percent over the past two decades. A landing is the amount of fish harvested at sea and brought to land.

In addition, other saltwater species that spawn in estuaries – a partially enclosed coastal body of water with a connection to the ocean – have experienced a similar decline, such as bluefish (78 percent), spot (94 percent) and Atlantic croaker (85 percent).

These declines, said Louis Daniel a marine scientist with the N.C. Wildlife Federation and former director of the N.C. Marine Fisheries Division, are casualties of commercial shrimp fishing operations in the nursery grounds of many of the species, such as flounder, which are in peril.

A large number of juvenile fish that migrate from spawning grounds in estuarine rivers to mature in fishing grounds – such as the Pamlico Sound, the state’s largest shrimp fishery – are unintentionally caught in shrimp trawls – funnel-shaped nets that are dragged to capture shrimp – before the fish are mature enough to reproduce. The same thing is happening with gill nets, net walls that hang vertically from fishing vessels.

Daniel estimates that for each pound of shrimp harvested, another 4 pounds of unwanted fish, called bycatch, perish.

“We are the only state from Maryland to Texas that trawls in nursery grounds,” said Daniel. “Once the juvenile fish enter the sound, trawlers go back and forth every day. It’s a rare (juvenile fish) that makes it from the inland nursing grounds through the sound during the trawling season and offshore to spawn.”

Researchers have raised the prospect that some species could eventually be extirpated from the fishery without action.

“This is the best example I know of the tragedy of the commons,” said Daniel. “We are the textbook tragedy.”

Louis Daniel of the NC Wildlife Federation at Radio Island Marina in Morehead City. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

Legislative fishing proposal

Daniel’s organization has created legislation, with support from the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, to urge action. Last spring, HB 483 – also known as the “Let ‘Em Spawn Before They are Gone” bill – passed the N.C. House of Representatives in June by a 58-47 vote and was assigned to the Committee on Rules and Operation of the Senate. The bill will most likely be heard by the Senate in the 2020 short session.

David Sneed, the executive director of the CCANC, said inshore trawling has been a problem for “decades” and other states have banned or severely restricted the practice.

The last meaningful reform to the North Carolina coastal fishing practices was the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997. Sneed said that it’s a “pretty good document,” but it needs revision.

In 2017, conservationists led an unsuccessful attempt to update the 1997 legislation. This year, said Sneed, their strategy is to pursue a segment of the 2017 reform effort, which became the Let ‘Em Spawn bill. The bill establishes a minimum size limit for significant marine fisheries species to ensure that juvenile fish at the size limit have a 75 percent probability of reaching maturity and can therefore spawn at least once. This is what marine scientists refer to as L75.

“It’s a compromise, but it’s a small step in the right direction for fisheries reform,” he said.

A core part of their legislative strategy, said Tim Gestwicki, CEO of the N.C. Wildlife Federation, is to present fishery reform as a statewide issue.

“It’s not a coastal issue,” Gestwicki said. “This a statewide public trust resource issue. For many years, it has been left alone to the coastal legislators and the pressure they receive. So far, the commercial interests have won the day.”

Brent Fulcher aboard the Micah Bell at the NC Seafood Festival in Morehead City. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

Commercial opposition

In 2018, 9.7 million pounds of shrimp were harvested at a value of $20 million, which is 25.7 percent of all commercial finfish and shellfish harvested in North Carolina, according to the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries.

According to the N.C. Fisheries Association, the state has one of the nation’s “most rigorous legal and regulatory” management systems. The web of regulations, the association said, “stymies growth and creates unnecessary barriers.”

In September, Brent Fulcher, a fourth-generation shrimper spoke to CPP during a break from guiding tours during the N.C. Seafood Festival in Morehead City aboard his fishing vessel, the Micah Bell.

Fulcher is the chairman of the board of directors of the N.C. Fisheries Association Inc. and operates a fleet of 10 shrimp boats and two commercial seafood operations in Craven and Carteret counties. His businesses employ 40 and support roughly 200-300 independent commercial fishermen.

“I don’t think Let Em Spawn is the right way to manage (the fishery),” he said.

“We’re the ones that put in the two-day conservation limit. We are the ones that went to the drawing board and figured out how to limit some areas.

“If you look at a fisherman being a farmer of the sea, he’s got to make sure he’s doing certain things to promote growth for the next year. We rotate out of certain fisheries to allow that resource to be sustainable. There are so many things that this industry does that people don’t realize.”

According to a document published by the NCFA, “Shrimp By-Catch: Bridging the Gap” written by Beaufort attorney Steven L. Weeks Sr., nearly 1 million acres of internal coastal waters are closed to trawling, just under half of the total coastal waters. In addition, it is estimated that only 10%-15% of coastal waters are trawled. In all, the document claims that survival rates of fish captured in shrimp trawls is 22%-48%.

During a tour, Fulcher demonstrated the operation of a “fish excluder device”, one of several bycatch reduction devices aboard the Micah Bell. The FED allows bycatch to escape through an opening in the net. The use of the devices are required by the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. Testing in 2015 showed reductions of bycatch up to 38 percent, according to the NCFA.

Daniel, of the N.C. Wildlife Federation, is skeptical. He explained to CPP that in the1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, the capacity of the commercial fishing fleet increased due to better engines, navigational tools and stronger, cheaper netting.

“The impression is that once a juvenile fish gets shot from the net, it grows up and spawns, but what happens is that 20 minutes later another trawler comes along,” he said.

“What they refuse to acknowledge is that the number of fish that survive an individual tow is meaningless. What is meaningful is what leaves the inlet and goes offshore and contributes to the population.”

The Micah Bell docked in Morehead City. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

Overseeing marine fisheries

The agency that manages North Carolina’s coastal fisheries said that the efforts of commercial fishermen to reduce bycatch have been meaningful.

In North Carolina, coastal fisheries are managed by the Division of Marine Fisheries of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

Kathy Rawls, chief of the Fisheries Management Section of the DMF, doesn’t dispute that North Carolina allows more fishing techniques than other states but said the compositions of the state’s estuaries and fisheries are not comparable to other states. The Pamlico Sound, for example, is the largest estuarine system along the Eastern Seaboard.

She also said that gill netting, while banned in other states, is “highly regulated” in North Carolina. Gill nets aren’t “necessarily as harmful as they are made out to be” if used appropriately, Rawls said.

“Shrimp trawl bycatch is something the division works on and has made huge improvements over the last several years and will be a huge part of future management plans,” she said.

Rawls also does not dispute that shrimp trawling has an impact on populations of fish caught; however, “the state looks at things other than just landings to determine the population status” of various fish. “It’s difficult to put a number on what level of bycatch is out there and what effect it has on some of these populations.” For example, she said, croaker have “such a high mortality rate as juveniles that it’s hard to put a number on it.”

Her primary concern with the Let ‘Em Spawn bill is the “across the board” application of the bill’s proposed size limit, L75.

“There are so many things that go into selecting the most appropriate size limit, but it is not just a sweeping broad brush that is L75. I don’t know of any other fishery management entity that manages fish in that way,” she said. “Right tool, just the wrong method.”

Daniel of the N.C. Wildlife Federation disagrees.

“Many (states) use size limits at or near the size at maturity,” he said.

“That’s the point. Many use L100, which means all fish have reached the size they spawn. Others use L50, which is the size in which half of them spawn. The L75 is a compromise between the two. HB483 is very specific to species where an L75 or a slot limit is appropriate.”

Fish for sale and on display at the Blue Ocean Market in Morehead City. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

An emotional issue

Proponents of Let ‘Em Spawn have attempted to work with commercial fishermen, Sneed said.

However, members of the commercial fishing industry “want the status quo,” he said.

“They feel that if they give up one thing, they will take it all, but the science is there to show the stocks are declining and their industry will kill itself if they don’t start to realize that things need to change.”

Chris Horton, the fisheries program director of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, said that, despite the drop in the population of Southern flounder and other species, “they can recover over time, but the science says we need to reduce the harvest because how we’ve been managing appears to not be working.”

The Washington, D.C.-based organization works with state legislatures to advance the interests of hunters and anglers and supports HB483.

Horton concedes, however, that regulating fisheries is an emotional issue.

“For recreational charter fishermen and commercial fishermen, this is their livelihood,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said he’s worried that North Carolina’s method of managing fish leaves it ripe for its politics to supersede the science.

“As a legislator representing a coastal community, you want to represent your constituents, but at the same time, we’ve got to look at the bigger picture to maintain the fisheries over the long term,” Horton said.

Indeed, advocates may have a tough time capturing support from coastal legislators when the Senate hears the bill next year.

The Let Em Spawn bill was co-sponsored by Reps. Larry Yarborough, R-Granville, Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, Michael Wray, D-Halifax, and Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, all representing inland districts, but was supported by just one coastal lawmaker, Rep. Holly Grange, R-New Hanover.

The state is managing fisheries “as well or better than any other state in the U.S.,” Fulcher said.

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“You need to let the state manage the fishery the way it’s intended to be managed and not by the General Assembly. Let ’Em Spawn is a way to circumvent the state. You manage it by the science, and that is what we’re all following.”

“For commercial and recreational fisherman, Let ‘Em Spawn will be devastating,” he said. “My business directly and indirectly supports 250-300 people. Let ’Em spawn would cause most of that to be gone.”


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Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

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