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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North Carolina legislators, recreational fishermen and wildlife organizations are increasing pressure to reform the rules and governance of commercial fishing in estuaries and sounds along the state’s coast.

The N.C. Coastal Fisheries Reform Group, a nonprofit organization, has said the degradation of marine fisheries is the most significant environmental issue facing the state, and it is going to court to seek change.

Joe Albea, a spokesman for the organization, said that “vast schools of croaker and gray trout all over North Carolina in the sounds and along the beach” were present in the 1970s and ’80s. “Through the years we have lost those great schools of fish,” he said.

The declining marine fish stock that includes southern flounder, spot and other species, he said, is a victim of commercial fishing rules allowing extensive trawling for shrimp on inshore estuarine waters, such as the Pamlico Sound. The group said fish landings have decreased over the past two decades from 38.5 million pounds to 4.9 million pounds. 

The NCCFRG alleges that hundreds of millions of juvenile fish are caught as “bycatch” in specialized gear and unable to spawn.

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.

The group said North Carolina is the only state on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts that permit extensive trawling of inshore estuarine waters.

The NCCFRG filed a lawsuit on Aug. 5 naming as defendants several commercial fishing operations and the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, part of the Department of Environmental Quality.

The lawsuit claims the disposal of dead bycatch violates the Clean Water Act of 1972 and has been “allowed and encouraged” by the DMF. The lawsuit said the “action is brought pursuant to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 (the Clean Water Act) for actions committed by the defendants which have violated the act’s prohibition on discharging pollutants to and dredging in navigable waters without a permit.”

“Since (the NCCFRG) started meeting (in 2009), we’ve made numerous attempts to make change in the state,” Albea told Carolina Public Press.

“We’ve tried to communicate with the commercial industry, the governor and the Department of Environmental Quality, but to no avail.”

Filing a lawsuit, he said, was a last resort.

“It’s the policy of the state to manage coastal fisheries for the benefit of all the citizens, not just trawling companies. Everyone owns a piece of that water even if you live in Boone in a hollow. You should be able to catch fish on the coast.”

Joe Albea, North Carolina Coastal Fisheries Reform group

“It’s the policy of the state to manage coastal fisheries for the benefit of all the citizens, not just trawling companies,” Albea said. “Everyone owns a piece of that water even if you live in Boone in a hollow. You should be able to catch fish on the coast.”

The lawsuit follows an unsuccessful attempt in the General Assembly to reform commercial fishing and address declining fish populations.

Legislative effort

In 2019, House Bill 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 proposed a minimum size limit for significant marine fisheries species to ensure that juvenile fish at the size limit have a 75% probability of reaching maturity and can therefore spawn at least once. However, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the legislation. The Senate did not act on the bill, and therefore it died for this session.

Let ‘Em Spawn co-sponsor state Rep. Larry Yarborough, R-Person, is hopeful that the bill will make it through the state House again next February. 

In the meantime, he said, his strategy is to educate other legislators throughout the state by showing them the impact of commercial fishing gear on a range of species to demonstrate that action is needed.

“Twenty years ago, fishing wasn’t any better in Florida or Louisiana,” Yarbrough told CPP.

“Other states removed trawls from the sounds and estuaries. Only North Carolina did not. North Carolina got it wrong, and we have seen a decline in our fisheries.

“Other states have been stable for the last 20 years. The decline in fish in our sounds and estuaries is an environmental failure of the state.”

N.C. Wildlife Federation CEO Tim Gestwicki is less optimistic that the Let ‘Em Spawn bill will succeed.

“I view it as a complete failure to pass something as simple as that bill,” he said. 

Agency consolidation?

The NCWF is advocating for the consolidation of the DMF into the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. The WRC manages and regulates inland fishing species.

Gestwicki said two separate management entities create duplication, ambiguity, redundancy and inefficiency. It also forms unique management challenges since some species live in both inland and coastal waters.

For example, striped bass spawn in freshwater and travel from coastal waters regulated by the DMF to reach inland waters regulated by the WRC.

Louis Daniel, an NCWF marine scientist, said, “Fish don’t realize they are moving from inland to coastal waters where juveniles can be caught with commercial gear.”

The problem is that the DMF regulates the coastal fishery for “maximum extraction and not necessarily in the best interest of the resource,” according to Daniel.

“There are many examples of how two different agencies managing the same fish can create a problem,” he said. “Stocks that move across boundaries should be managed by a single agency within the state.”

The NCWF also said the Marine Fisheries Commission represents special interest groups, including the commercial fishing industry, and consistently rejects management options based on scientific research and analysis. The commission is a nine-member body appointed by governors to regulate North Carolina’s marine and estuary resources.

In addition, the NCWF said the DMF is supervised by the secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, a political appointee who may direct policy based on political considerations rather than the best available science.

The NCWF explained in an executive summary that the WRC commissioners have “no mandated financial incentives related to their decisions” to manage wildlife resources and while “not immune from political considerations” are “less influenced by them.”

The WRC has 19 commissioners who are appointed by the governor, the speaker of the state House and president pro tempore of the state Senate.

“We are not getting science-based management,” Gestwicki said. “Science-based management is why the WRC was established. Why should NC be lagging behind the rest of the union?”

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

Lawsuit defendants: Unimpressed

Patricia Smith, communications director of the DMF, said the DEQ has no comment on the pending lawsuit in which it is a defendant. She wrote in an email to CPP that the proposed merger “has a long-standing history. It’s been debated and studied before, and ultimately the action was not recommended.”

CPP attempted to reach out to the other defendants of the lawsuit.

Brent Fulcher, whose fishing vessel, the Micah Bell, is named as a defendant, told CPP that he hasn’t been “served yet and will have to see what the case is alleging before I will say anything.” He also said that the merger of the DMF and WRC is a bad idea. 

“There are two different stocks you are managing in freshwater and saltwater,” he said. “They are so different in terms of habitat and the things that affect them, whether it be climate, whether it’s seasonal, or cyclical.”

Glenn Skinner, executive director of the trade group the N.C. Fisheries Association, believes the lawsuit is without merit. He does not favor consolidating regulators.

“We’re opposed for multiple reasons and have strong concerns about the (NCWF’s) motivations,” Skinner said. “I see this as another attempt to fulfill their agenda.” 

Skinner argued in a blog post in July that the NCWF has an anti-commercial ideology and that the state commercial industry has been “under attack from special interest groups for decades.”

“Opponents of commercial fishing are quick to use the decreased landings as proof that our fisheries are failing, but are not so quick to admit that management measures they pushed are responsible for the decreased harvest,” Skinner wrote.

“While many of our state’s finfish fisheries have been regulated to the brink of extinction, North Carolina’s shrimp trawl fishery has remained viable, making it a prime target for special interest groups. If the WRC were to take over management of our coastal fisheries, I have no doubt they would move swiftly to ban commercial gears in all state waters.”

Albea of the NCCFRG said his group is not interested in shutting down commercial fishing.

“What we are out to do is to change the gear so the fish can rebound so we can manage them for sustainable harvest, both commercially and recreationally,” he said.

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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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  1. South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas have already dealt with this problem . north Carolina had got to get the trawlers out of our inland water way’s.