Petition update

Small victory for shrimping, but the fight is FAR FROM OVER!!!

Megan Spencer
Swan Quarter, NC, United States

Jan 23, 2017 — Around 20 trawl boats made their way up the Neuse River to anchor in front of the New Bern Convention Center on Tuesday in a show of protest to proposed rules that would severely impact and ultimately kill their industry.

Inside, the spacious conference room was filled to capacity with mostly advocates and supporters of commercial fishing. Donning badges saying "Deny the petition" with a trawl boat on the back drop, the show of solidarity was palpable.

The meeting was called for five joint advisory committees to the Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) to hear facts about the NC Wildlife Federation's (NCWF) petition for rule-making that imposes very strict rules on trawling. The advisory groups heard from three panels - those that authored the petition, those that oppose it and staffers from the Division of Marine Fisheries. Public comment was finally heard at 5 p.m.

Nearly seven hours later, a recommendation was sent to the MFC to deny the petition. While this may seem like a victory for commercial fishermen, advocates know that the fight is far from over. The NCWF petition still has to be put to a vote by the MFC in February. Some fear that politics, rather than science, economics and fairness, will win the fight against the trawling fishery.

Throughout the meeting, advisory members unraveled what could be determined as a poorly thought-out petition, pointing out large factors that were omitted - namely economics and science.

One of the biggest flaws the panel pointed out repeatedly is the fact that no other environmental factors were considered in the NCWF's accusation that trawlers were destroying the finfish population. From cormorants to construction and economics to foreign imports, there were many elements the NCWF admittedly left out. It was very clear that the group had one purpose with their proposed petition for rule-making- to shut down trawling in NC waters.

Blakesley Hildabrand, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, assured the crowd and the committees that “we are not trying to ban shrimp trawling…. We are not attempting to ban gill nets either.” Despite the instructions from the MFC chair, the crowd groaned. Whispers from the crowd wondered why gill netters were even included in the conversation.

Small Victory for Trawling Industry
Jack Travelstead presented a technical review of the NCWF petition. His accolades included membership on the MFC and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, as well as technical papers authored by himself and former NC Division of Marine Fisheries Director Dr. Louis Daniel (who was not present). He alleged that if those in the trawler industry had more restrictions, “fishermen will fish harder.” He also said that anyone could get into the NC trawling industry.

“Not in this state they can’t” said Pam Morris, vice chair of the southern regional advisory committee. She pointed out licence requirements and restrictions already in place to govern the fishery. Most in the audience knew that it was very unlikely that just anyone would sign up to be a trawl boater, considering the gear and equipment involved. Furthermore, numbers show a steep decline in the number of trawlers in the past two decades. Several at public comment portion of the meeting pointed this out, too.

Brent Fulcher on the finfish advisory committee asked if NCWF thought a farmer could grow the same amount of corn with less acreage. He also pointed out that the trawling industry has seen an 80 percent decline in participation over the last decade. For an environmental group based in Raleigh, he said there was no reason NCWF didn’t consult other state agencies about their allegation that trawling industry is killing all the fish.

“To prohibit, just like Jack said, would be the easiest way to conserve,” pointed out Mike Street, on the Habitat and Water Quality committee. Citing some 38 years of work with the Division of Marine Fisheries, he said he helped define primary and secondary nursery areas, among other fisheries management efforts. Just because other states banned trawling doesn’t mean we have to. “We have a 40 by 60-mile sound.” He also pointed out the lack of scientific evidence to include the ocean in the restrictions. “There is no data.”

Regarding the NCWF’s proposal to designate all NC waters as a secondary estuary, Clay Willis asked if the NCWF had coordinated with other agencies, such as CAMA, the Division of Water Quality, the Division of Coastal Management or local municipalities.

“No, we have not discussed this issue with DCM (Division of Coastal Management) or municipalities,” said Hildabrand.

She also couldn’t explain why fish stocks in North Carolina were relatively the same as other states that don’t allow trawling.

“You don’t understand how these people live,” said Perry Beasley on the shellfish and crustacean advisory committee, pointing out that the word “estimate” was used repeatedly in the NCWF petition. He also noted that weather and environmental factors that impact the fishery were omitted. Citing a recent study on cormorants, he noted that this healthy population of birds can each consume up to two pounds of fish per day. “Do the math,” he advised.

Another flaw was the NCWF allegation that four pounds of finfish are discarded for every pound of shrimp landed. Former DMF Director Dr. Louis Daniel said in August 2013 at a similar meeting that the bycatch number was an estimate. A handful of committee members referenced the former DMF director saying the number was “pulled from the air.”

Several committee members pointed out that poorly inspected seafood is shipped to our nation from foreign countries bearing “unsafe levels of filth.” The NCWF petition also fails to recognize the fact that nearly ninety percent of seafood consumed in the US is imported.

Another committee member questioned the proposal to cut the trawler’s work week to three days per week. “Wouldn’t the fish be thicker in the next tow?”

The audience laughed when Travelstead answered, “I would hope those fish would disperse.”

“I see a group that is trying to assume the job that the Marine Fisheries does,” said another committee member. “How do you justify taking tens of thousands of jobs and what are you going to give back to the state?”

Mark Brown showed up to paint the scene.
Mark Brown showed up to paint the scene.
Again the audience laughed at David Knight’s (with NCWF) answer. “Hundreds of millions of juvenile fish.”

Hildabrand scrambled several times to answer the questions about the economic impacts of the NCWF petition. She said the Southern Environmental Law Center was “not in the position to address economic impacts.”

Regarding their proposal to enforce a 90-foot headrope for trawl gear, Fulcher asked where the science came from to support the claim the rule will reduce bycatch.

“Other states have done it,” said Knight. Referencing the claim that NC is the only state that allows trawling, Knight's contradiction again drew laughs from the audience. So Fulcher asked his question again and Knight said he couldn’t respond directly to the question. “In other words, you don’t have the science,” concluded Fulcher.

“I can’t respond directly to that,” said Knight.

Sara Winslow, DMF staffer and member of the finfish advisory committee, said that without scientific data, the petition damages all credibility of already established areas of protection and is in direct conflict of the Shrimp Fishery Management Plan.

The DMF presented information that shrimping isn’t the only fishery that will be affected by the NCWF petition. Crab trawling, clam kicking, finfish trawling and live bait harvest would also be directly impacted by the proposed rules.

“It saddens me,” said Connell Purvis, former DMF director and scientist that closely studied shrimp in NC waters. He called the NCWF effort “selfish ambition” as he said the threat isn’t the trawler, but fresh water. “Higher salinity means higher productivity.” In addition to his extensive shrimp studies in the 70s, he cited a more recent study that concluded finfish population was more productive in areas that were trawled.

Repeatedly, religion was entered into the record. Gerald Craddock, pastor of two churches in Engelhard, came just to tell the committees that most of his congregation would be out of work if the NCWF petition was granted.

Kent Williams, trawl boat captain also from Engelhard told the board, “There’s no way I could live.”

“Ultimately, the science is there, the demand is there, the economic benefit is there and certainly, the history is there. Please keep fresh seafood on our tables, our people working and our coastal heritage strong. Deny the NC Wildlife petition.” Armed with a counter-petition of more than 5,000 signatures from people across the nation, Megan Spencer (the author of this article) asked the committees to please let our fishermen keep on fishing.

While the committees voted to recommend denial of the NCWF petition, the MFC will have the final say at their business meeting in February.

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