BEAUFORT — In an effort to protect more than 200 square miles of coastal fishing waters, county officials have waded into the ongoing discussion surrounding the reclassification of boundaries separating coastal and inland fishing waters.
At their Dec. 16 meeting at the administrative building in Beaufort, county commissioners passed a resolution condemning the reclassification of lines separating inland from coastal waters.
“The proposed reclassification of jurisdictional waters would be a loss of approximately 144,984 square acres or 226.5 square miles of coastal and commercial fishing waters, thus, creating even more confusion and regulations to the already over-regulated North Carolina commercial fishing industry,” reads a portion of the resolution.
The state Wildlife Resources Commission defines coastal fishing waters as the Atlantic Ocean, coastal sounds and estuarine waters up until the dividing line separating coastal water from inland waters. The agency defines inland waters as waters connecting tributaries, coastal sounds or the ocean extending inland or upstream from the dividing line.
County commissioners passed the resolution as part of their consent agenda, a list of routine items that typically don’t require discussion.
At the beginning of the year, the WRC created a joint commission with the Marine Fisheries Commission in order to establish new rules separating inland waters from coastal waters.
Following a joint May meeting, the commissions disagreed on the criteria for establishing a boundary. During its August regular session, the WRC made a decision despite a lack of consensus with the MFC.
“The WRC business meeting was held with little direct notice to the MFC or to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality,” reads a portion of the county’s resolution. “At this meeting, the WRC decided to move forward with the proposed boundaries based on the arbitrary 2.6 ppt salinity value.”
In an August press release, the WRC said the choice was anything but arbitrary.
“Agency staff employed an objective, science-based approach using salinity values, measured levels of salt in the water, to determine the transition between coastal and inland fishing waters,” reads the August press release. “Salinity data were used to map long-term averages during low and high salinity seasons.
“Previous research, conducted on the Neuse River in North Carolina, has shown that freshwater fish were most abundant at a salinity of 2.6 parts per thousand or less. Based on this, a threshold of 2.6 ppt was used to define the transition zones, within which specific boundaries were drawn,” the commission said.
Jess Hawkins of Carteret County’s Marine Fisheries Advisory Board, said salinity values are a poor metric.
“As a scientist and as a fisherman…I oppose those efforts,” Mr. Hawkins said. “I called the county Wednesday (Dec. 18) in thanking them for addressing this issue and thanking them for their resolution opposing it.”
Mr. Hawkins added that he felt the new classification expanded the WRC’s jurisdiction.
“They are using salinity levels,” Mr. Hawkins said. “The standard is, if they are less than (the 2.6 ppt salinity value) it would be considered inland waters, i.e. under the jurisdiction of wildlife commission and no longer be under the jurisdiction of the Marine Fisheries Commission.”
Mr. Hawkins said the change could affect the work of environmental advocacy groups.
“In turn, the Coastal Resources Commission, which is the commission set up by our General Assembly to help protect fisheries, habitats and critical habitats…they believe a large amount (of coastal waters) will be transferred out of their jurisdiction because their jurisdiction falls to coastal waters in coastal counties. They would lose jurisdiction.”
He believes there are a number of other metrics that could be used to establish the jurisdictional boundaries.
“You could use variation, you don’t have to use absolute salinity,” Mr. Hawkins said. “You can use species composition; you can use species diversity. You can use the prevalence of certain fisheries that are dependent on the different types of fish that use coastal habitats or use a combination of all those.”
Siding with Carteret County’s resolution, Mr. Hawkins hopes other coastal communities will speak out against the proposed measure while there is still time.
“The MFC would be required by law to perform a comprehensive financial analysis to modify jurisdictional boundaries, which would include a review of all existing rules and a detailed mapping effort expected to take over a year to complete,” reads a portion of the county’s resolution.
Contact Dean-Paul Stephens at 252-726-7081, ext. 232; email Dean@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @DeanPEStephens.