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Editor’s note: This article is part 5 of the 5-part award-winning series Changing Tides, originally posted Sept. 17, 2021. The series is being reposted in July 2022. The series was made possible in part through support from the Pulitzer Center.
Waves, inland runoff and a record tidal surge from Hurricane Florence in September 2018 battered the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, whose northern perimeter borders the Neuse River southeast of New Bern.
To reinforce the damaged riverbank, a Department of Defense program in late 2020 granted $1 million to support the planting of 2,100 linear feet of living shoreline.
The project not only supports Cherry Point’s critical military mission but also serves as an on-the-ground laboratory of a Duke University initiative to restore eastern oysters in estuarine habitat.
“Oyster reefs are among the most decimated ecosystems on planet Earth,” Duke biologist Brian Silliman said.
The project addresses the cumulative effects of how climate change — including the potential for rising seas, warmer temperatures and more intense storms — will continue to transform the shoreline and the coastal fisheries that depend on a healthy estuarine system.
In this case, bivalve creatures fertilize and stabilize threatened seagrass habitat. Over time, plants and oysters form reefs and marshes, which protect the shoreline from wind, waves and tides.
Silliman’s work is an illustration of how North Carolina will answer the hazards of an altered climate along the state’s ocean shore.
Yet as the impacts of climate change on North Carolina’s coastal fisheries mount, do solutions lie in singular projects, such as the restored shoreline, or do they involve heftier systemic changes to the institutions that govern our fisheries?
Silliman’s project is one of several living shoreline projects along the North Carolina coast intended to address growing concerns and demonstrate that living shoreline restoration can be scaled and replicated.
The 2,100 acres at Cherry Point will be accompanied by another 5,600 linear feet of shoreline slated for repair along the Neuse River, with an $8 million match in funding. The military is working with the Pew Charitable Trust’s conservation efforts, Duke University and the N.C. Coastal Federation.
Leda Cunningham of Pew said the partnerships on this project “hold promise” by facilitating scientists’ understanding of shorelines and how the knowledge can be applied to other situations and lead to more collaboration and conservation of coastal resources.
The work at Cherry Point is also complemented by the Oyster Restoration and Protection Plan for North Carolina, a broad public and private effort.
Later this fall, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality is expected to approve the state’s updated Coastal Habitat Restoration Plan, which the state revises every five years. It includes statewide goals to protect habitat.
Yet even if humans were to cut global greenhouse gas emissions to zero tomorrow, the planet would still be warming from what’s already in the atmosphere, increasing the likelihood of more and stronger hurricanes. Sea rise and warmer waters are assured.
Though living shorelines and other technical solutions to ecological problems related to climate are promising, the uncertainty of climate change will require a range of remedies and adaptations.
North Carolina Sea Grant fisheries extension expert Sara Mirabilio’s job is to help anglers, the fishing industry, policymakers and the public understand applied marine science.
Sharing information about the impact of climate change and its effect on fisheries is an important element of adapting. However, Mirabilio has adopted an approach that doesn’t include finger-wagging or shaming. She relies simply on science.
“Applied science isn’t any good sitting on a shelf,” she said.
Established in 1970 and headquartered at N.C. State University, the mission of N.C. Sea Grant is to provide research, education and outreach to scientists, educators, government agencies, coastal businesses and communities. This means unbiased, scientifically sound information about the state’s coastal ecosystems.
For a decade, Mirabilio worked with commercial fishermen and distributors to market wild-caught seafood throughout the state. Annually, she also facilitates a public course on marine science that includes presentations by marine scientists and technocrats.
She also works to inform policymakers and elected officials in coastal communities.
In 2019, she served as a nonvoting science adviser of the Working Watermen Commission of Dare County, advising commissioners on fishing-related issues and helping them interpret state and federal regulations.
Dare County includes a portion of the Outer Banks and Wanchese, one of the state’s largest commercial fishing harbors. Areas around Nags Head and Manteo in Dare County are also popular sites for recreational fishing.
The commission, which was dormant for several years, was reinstated in 2018 by Dare County Commissioner Steve House.
“All of our board of commissioners have supported our watermen from day one,” said House, a self-described champion of commercial fishermen and the working waterfront. “This is our heritage. I want to keep it going.”
The threat, as he sees it, is the regulatory environment that is increasingly hostile and under attack from wrong-headed regulators and the environmental community.
“The biggest thing for us is regulation and the water quality in the sound has gone down,” House said.
“We need regulatory relief and to make sure our commercial fishermen have a fair and even playing field.”
Scientists have demonstrated that there are both nonclimate and climate-related factors contributing to worsening water quality in the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, but the cause of environmental changes is a tricky subject.
Some lawmakers and fishermen share a recognition of novel environmental challenges but remain suspicious about climate change.
“Climate change is the least of our worries,” House said. “Ocean level rising? We haven’t seen any evidence of it. The climate on Earth has been changing since day one. Has man added to it? Not to the scale that I’ve heard. So, it runs in cycles. We just have to learn to adapt.”
More hurricanes are also a reality, he acknowledged, and are damaging and disruptive to the fishing industry.
“We know they’re coming,” House said. “You live on an island, sooner or later you’re going to hit.”
For her part, Mirabilio is skilled at navigating contentious issues surrounding the fishing industry.
For example, over the years, she’s structured fishery meetings where she allows space for participants to vent.
“People want to say their piece; otherwise, they’re going to be closed off to anything you’re going to say,” she said. “It’s a necessary step forward so they’re open to a more productive conversation.”
She didn’t last long on the Dare County commission after several members of the public saw her role on the commission as a conflict of interest, despite her nonvoting status.
The experience, however, hasn’t pushed her away from trying to share with communities about future threats and finding strategies to be more resilient to changes from a warming climate.
Many resilience efforts and coordination will happen at the local level, such as managing coastal development, water quality, sewage systems, roads and piers.
Yet even without climate change, fishing is a contentious topic on the North Carolina coast, and finding policy solutions at the local, state or federal level to respond to a warming climate won’t be easy.
A question of resilience
Resilience — although tricky to define — refers not just to the ability of marine populations to bounce back to changes in climate but also to the ability of humans.
Humans are adaptable. The question is whether we acclimate fast enough.
After all, the Albemarle Peninsula where Clegg’s county is located “has always been a pocosin wetland,” he said. “The ecology and hydrology have always been volatile.”
Yet, the voices of the state’s most vulnerable are often excluded from the official dialogue of responding to climate change, said Jessica Whitehead of Old Dominion University. She directs the Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience at ODU and previously served as North Carolina’s first chief resilience officer with the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency.
“There are people out there who have great ideas,” Whitehead said. “We haven’t given them places at the decision-making table when we’re talking about developing solutions in the way that they deserve. We need to engage them.”
North Carolina has developed a climate resilience plan that includes strategies for marine fisheries, water infrastructure, air quality and coastal management that takes on infrastructure.
It also includes an environmental justice plan to identify socially vulnerable communities and provide more opportunities for engagement and resources to adapt.
“One of the most important things to realize is that places like Tyrrell County need to exist,” Clegg said of the small low-lying coastal county, many of whose residents rely on catching fish or crabs to feed themselves.
And while not everyone in Tyrrell County acknowledges the existence of climate change, Clegg said, they understand that changes to the environment are in progress.
Yet, supporting an economy for tens of thousands in the state’s coastal communities may be more difficult in the shadow of a warmer climate.
“Ten, 15, 20 years from now,” Whitehead warned, those impacts will be less theoretical, more concrete and ultimately dependent on the ability of coastal residents to find solutions.
Floundering management schemes
The management schemes for two species of flounder with whale-sized value in North Carolina may provide a cautionary tale for managers of threatened fisheries and inform future governance schemes.
Summer flounder, or fluke, are typically harvested by commercial fishermen using trawls on the open sea. North Carolina is at the southern end of the range for the cold-water species. Two U.S. regional fishery management councils established through federal legislation manage the species.
Commercial and recreational anglers typically harvest southern flounder in estuarine waters. Unlike its summer counterpart, southern flounder is a warm-water species, and North Carolina is at the northern edge of its range.
Anglers typically catch these fish in estuarine systems, where the state owns and regulates most water.
The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries manages southern flounder under a statewide management plan. On Sept. 1, the recreational southern flounder season opened in North Carolina. It closed Sept. 14.
After several seasons of struggling to catch any southern flounder, fishing guide Tom Roller of Beaufort on the state’s central coast said this season is different. On the first Saturday of the season, his clients bagged their limit.
“We’re seeing more fish and catching them — that’s exciting,” he said. “That means (management of southern flounder) is working. We can rebuild this fishery.”
Roller, whom Gov. Roy Cooper recently appointed to his second term as a member of the Marine Fisheries Commission, is on record supporting a moratorium on the fishery, even though his livelihood depends on it.
“What would be more devastating would be to lose this fishery forever,” Roller said, speaking as a fishing professional.
“We need to do everything we can to rebuild this fishery so that they will be viable for future generations. The most important finfish that people love to catch, and the season is reduced to two weeks. People should be mad.”
But closing the fishery completely is a complicated policy.
Roller said many coastal economies depend on the fishery: charter captains, tackle shops and others that rely on the recreational and commercial industry for southern flounder.
The commercial southern flounder season runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 21 in three staggered stages from north to south.
However, not everyone is willing to tolerate what the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina considers gross mismanagement of the fishery.
In November 2020, 86 citizens and the CCA of NC filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging state officials have tolerated the overfishing of flounder and other species of coastal fish valued by the fishing public, including sport and recreational anglers.
According to the CCA of NC, commercial landings of southern flounder declined by 80% between 1997 and 2019.
Although the state sought dismissal of the lawsuit, a Wake County Superior Court judge rejected each of the state’s arguments on July 28. The state is appealing.
The problem, said Louis Daniel, a marine scientist and former director of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries from 2007-16, is that his former agency manages the coastal fishery for “maximum extraction.”
“This is the best example I know of the tragedy of the commons,” Daniel said. “We are the textbook tragedy. There is no incentive to conserve. You’ve got to take the race for the fish out of it. To properly manage this fishery there should be no open season.
“People are on top of each other catching flounder just as hard as they can at their favorite spots. So, we’re losing all of the gains that we’re making in stock rebuilding.”
Management decision-makers shouldn’t have “a vested interest in the outcome and should rely exclusively on the science to make their decisions,” he said.
There’s been major pushback from the commercial industry that views attacks from Daniel and the recreational organizations as a threat to their livelihoods.
In theory, recreational and commercial fishermen should be allied in finding strategies to organize and maintain fisheries in the shadow of climate change.
Yet, there’s little love between the two factions.
The divide between the two groups doesn’t surprise environmental economist Chris Kennedy of George Mason University. “Resource competition leads to conflict,” he said.
Declining prices and rising costs accelerated by altered fisheries have made commercial fisheries less valuable than recreational fishing.
Consumers may be willing to pay $25 per pound for a red snapper at a retail market, Kennedy said, while a recreational fisherman is willing to pay several hundred dollars more for the same snapper, but with the experience of catching one.
As a result, recreational fishermen are potentially a more powerful set of interests. On the other hand, commercial fishermen may have more incentive to fight for their diminishing section of the pie. Indeed, fewer commercial fishermen are entering the industry because of the uncertainty and their perceptions of the regulatory climate.
In North Carolina, the total impact of recreational fishing on the state’s economy is $3 billion. The total impact of commercial fishing is $300 million, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Economics of the U.S. database.
Kennedy said property rights for an open-access resource, such as fish, are typically less transparent than the ownership of timber and other land-based natural resources. Altering the way fishing rules are executed and enforced to improve transparency to the public may be part of a solution to managing fisheries in the face of climate change.
Along the East Coast, Kennedy said, the management of fisheries is decentralized relative to others around the world. For example, Australia exerts more top-down authority.
“States and localities (on the East Coast) are granted quite a bit more authority over how to manage the resources under their jurisdiction,” he said.
“So, there’s this tension between being representative and being able to respond to large-scale problems that cross jurisdictions.”
Kennedy noted a global movement toward decentralization and community-based natural resource management, in which fishing allocation decisions are made at the lowest or smallest level that can effectively deal with the problem.
Lobster fishermen in Maine are an example. They use a unique co-management system that is relatively decentralized. A 1995 state law there created lobster management zones whereby councils of fishermen elected by other license holders in the zone allow members to modify existing rules and propose new rules regarding trap limits and limit entry with a two-thirds majority vote.
That level of coordination has allowed them to adapt quickly to crises and to have a stronger voice in water-quality issues and other threats to the fishery.
Indeed, the management of summer flounder, or fluke, may also demonstrate the complexity of managing fisheries at a bigger scale.
Unlike southern flounder, fluke are managed by NOAA Fisheries, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission since their biomass often moves across state lines and the fish are harvested in both state and federal waters.
Quotas for summer flounder and other species are allocated to the state where the harvest is landed.
However, summer flounder are migrating northward, potentially a result of warmer seas. According to a recent study, in 1996, the summer flounder fleet fished mainly off the Carolina coast. Over time, however, the average catch location moved north, and fluke are now primarily fished off the coast of New Jersey.
But North Carolina fishermen hold a larger quota than New Jersey commercial fishermen since the commercial catch limit is distributed among the states based on their share of commercial landings during the 1980s.
As fluke exit Carolina waters, commercial fishermen based in North Carolina voyage farther north to capture their quota. The result is more expensive trips in larger vessels that require more fuel, more labor and greater maintenance.
“An interesting question is why hasn’t the quota been reallocated northward?” Kennedy said.
Politically, not enough incentive exists to cooperate, organize and influence the political process, such as shifting or trading the quota to New Jersey fishermen.
New Jersey fishermen may not have the money to compensate Carolina fishermen to lease the quota, while North Carolina fishermen may not be convinced that this is a permanent shift in biomass. Their best option, Kennedy said, is to hold onto the quota rather than transfer it to New Jersey fishermen.
There’s also a political desire to maintain the quota, since North Carolina fishermen must land fish at North Carolina processing plants, thus supporting fish houses and jobs here.
“The problem is, it’s hard to get all of the users together and agree when something is changing,” Kennedy said.
Indeed, commercial fishermen in North Carolina and elsewhere perceive a high degree of regulatory risk, unnerving changes in the environment and risk associated with their supply chain, such as the price they’ll get for their catch and whether they’ll find a buyer.
Charlie Locke, a commercial fisherman from Wanchese, said he’ll “fight tooth and nail not to lose (access to a fishery) because I know how hard it is to get it back. That’s my fear.
“It’s a fine line of getting people to understand that (commercial fishermen) aren’t the enemy,” he said. “We all have the same goal: healthy fish stocks for our kids and our grandkids.”
What’s the future for fisheries?
Both Maine lobstermen and North Carolina fishermen will have an opportunity to comment on the future governance of East Coast fisheries.
The process, called scenario planning, “is a rigorous, disciplined, replicable way of consistently asking the question of what might happen and what we do as a result of it,” said Jonathan Star, a consultant on fisheries scenarios for NOAA.
The problem is that “our experience tells us that we are not particularly good at thinking about the future.”
In other words, scenario planning gives up looking at the past and focuses on the future.
Star facilitated a series of virtual meetings as part of the East Coast Climate Change Scenario Planning Initiative. The multiyear project is sponsored by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, NOAA Fisheries and the three East Coast fishery management councils.
Following the initial stages of gathering information from the public, the process will develop a series of scenarios — or provocative stories about the future of East Coast fisheries. The hope is to better prepare people for what might happen in the future.
Precedents exist for using scenario planning to manage fisheries. In 2018, NOAA used scenarios to better understand the challenges of right whale management, and in 2017 the agency piloted a scenario planning exercise for Atlantic salmon.
The results led to several policy changes, including new regulations to reduce right whale entanglements with fishing gear and to reduce vessel strikes.
“Any planning work we do means that we have to make an assessment of the future,” Star said. Often, however, “when we assess the future, we’re overconfident on our predictions and think narrowly about what might happen and discount the possibilities of surprises.”
Among the objectives of the planning process is to explore how fishery governance and climate-driven change in fisheries will affect management issues and generate policy recommendations for broader governance changes.
The process will encourage people — managers, fishers, researchers and others with a stake in how oceans are managed — to think about some of the possibilities that people don’t spend much time considering, including unlikely events that can still happen, Star said.
He hopes the exercise will encourage a broad range of stakeholders to imagine different possibilities under the shadow of a changing climate.
“Ultimately, this is all about developing new and revised ideas and approaches to better prepare for an era of climate change,” he said. “We know we’re going to be in a different world.”