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A recreational saltwater anglers association filed a lawsuit this month alleging that the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries failed to protect and maintain state-owned resources — particularly coastal fisheries.
DMF is part of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, and the suit is the second of its kind in the last six months to accuse state officials of not adequately managing coastal fisheries.
The North Carolina chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association filed the civil action in Wake County Superior Court against DMF for its “abject failure” to properly manage coastal fisheries.
“The suit gives us an avenue to ask the courts to hold our elected officials responsible for better management of our resource,” said David Sneed, executive director of CCA.
“Our state leaders lack political will to do it, and we hope the courts will put them in the right direction.”
Under a legal principle called public trust doctrine, the government has an obligation to protect and maintain state-owned natural and cultural resources that are preserved for public use. The complaint said coastal fishery resources are held by the state in trust for the benefit of all current and future North Carolina citizens.
CCA said the department has been “co-opted to serve the commercial interests they are charged with regulating” by allowing destructive fishing practices and gear use, such as gill nets and trawls.
A debate about ‘overfishing’
The complaint also says the state allowed chronic overfishing of species such as Southern flounder and striped bass and alleges that the department inaccurately reported fish harvested and sold, known as landings, by licensed commercial fishermen.
However, Glenn Skinner, executive director of the N.C. Fisheries Association, a commercial trade group in Morehead City, said the state’s reporting is accurate. North Carolina doesn’t require every fish harvested by a commercial license holder to be reported.
“All fish sold by commercial license holders are required to be recorded, but fish harvested for personal consumption are not documented on a trip ticket,” he said. “The assertion that the state has disregarded the issue is false.”
Factors other than commercial and recreational harvest can lead to a fish stock being listed as “overfished,” Skinner said.
“It’s widely known and accepted that environmental factors often have a greater impact on fish abundance than fishing does.”
“Commercial license holders are not required to harvest fish in order to maintain their license, and many fishermen pay the fee to renew their license with the intent of using it in the future but are not actively harvesting seafood,” he said.
Skinner said he was not surprised by the most recent lawsuit and said the commercial industry has been under attack from what he calls special-interest groups for decades.
“I find it interesting that they fail to mention the supporting businesses, restaurants and consumers who depend on commercial fishing for their livelihoods and access to this resource,” he said.
However, Sneed said it’s commercial interests that have co-opted the state’s regulatory agency.
“The complaint is clear, however, that law-abiding commercial fishing license holders are not directly responsible for the poor state of North Carolina’s coastal fish stocks,” he said.
“Instead, the complaint explains that the root cause of the demise of those stocks is the state’s mismanagement of its coastal fisheries resources.”
In addition to CCA, five former members of the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission and 86 citizens who reside in 29 counties across the state signed on as plaintiffs in the case.
Not the first claim
In August, the N.C. Coastal Fisheries Reform Group, a nonprofit organization, took legal action against DMF and several commercial fishing operations in federal court, claiming that the state’s failure to manage the resource and their management actions violate the U.S. Clean Water Act.
Joe Albea, a spokesman for the group, said the degradation of marine fisheries is the most significant environmental issue facing the state.
The declining marine fish stock that includes Southern flounder, spot and other species are victims of commercial fishing rules allowing extensive trawling for shrimp on inshore estuarine waters, such as the Pamlico Sound, the state’s largest shrimp fishery.
The group said fish landings have decreased over the past two decades from 38.5 million pounds to 4.9 million pounds.
The group also alleged that hundreds of millions of juvenile fish were caught as “bycatch” in specialized gear and unable to spawn. The fish were unintentionally captured in shrimp trawls — funnel-shaped nets that are dragged to harvest shrimp — before the fish were mature enough to reproduce.
The lawsuit said the disposal of dead bycatch violated 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.”
On Nov. 6, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed a portion of their claim against DEQ in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
Albea said the move was part of a legal strategy rather than a willingness to back off their claims.
“We still have a huge issue with the DEQ,” he said. “We felt that the violation of the Clean Water Act was a stronger case and we decided to focus on that rather than their violation of the public trust. We’re not backing down an iota.”
DEQ Secretary Michael S. Regan said in a press release on Nov. 10 that the voluntary partial dismissal “confirms our view from the outset that the claims in this lawsuit were without legal merit and detract from the meaningful efforts of diverse stakeholders working together to ensure we protect our resources for current and future generations.”
Regan said the claim the agency violated the Clean Water Act is without evidence.