RALEIGH — The state Senate has passed a budget bill that includes a new commercial fishing fund proposed by the N.C. Fisheries Association and backed by the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission.
This isn’t the only change the Senate has proposed for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries’ budget. The Senate proposes closing one of the division’s regional offices and cutting several staff positions.
On May 31, the Senate engrossed – put in final form after committee review and approval – Senate Bill 744, the 2014 Appropriations Act. The bill includes creating an N.C. Commercial Fishing Resource Fund, a new fund the NCFA (a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the state seafood industry) proposed in February to the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission at its regular meeting.
This bill, if passed by both sides of the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, would set the fiscal 2014-15 state budget. The budget bill now goes to the state House for further review and amendments.
Jerry Schill, NCFA president, said Monday that he’s very pleased the Senate included the fund in its budget bill.
“I’ve been in Raleigh since they convened to make sure it happened,” Mr. Schill said. “I’m going back up tomorrow (Tuesday). I’ll be there until they (the House) adjourn.”
Some unnamed people aren’t pleased with the proposal. N.C. Fishery Management and You, a grassroots movement whose goal is “to educate citizens who may not be in the ‘know’ regarding fishery management in North Carolina” posted a message on its Facebook page, www.facebook.com/ncfisherymanagementandyou, on Monday.
“It looks like another session where commercial fishermen will control the Raleigh agenda,” the group said.
The group is opposed to the use of gill nets, a commercial fishing gear often used for flounder fishing. Environmental groups have opposed continued use of gill nets due to bycatch issues and impacts to commercial species’ stocks.
The fund, if created, would fund the state’s observer program. This program is required to maintain the incidental take permit needed to allow the commercial gill net fishery to operate due to protected species interacting with the gill nets.
N.C. Fishery Management and You is asking residents to write to their legislators and request they not fund observers in estuarine gill net fisheries. It also wants fees for Standard Commercial Fishing Licenses and Retired Standard Commercial Fishing Licenses raised to “fair market value” and the funds used for resource enhancement.
“The fair-market established price (based on CraigList sales) for the initial right to fish is between $1,500 and $2,000” the group said. “The fair market annual renewal cost for the right to fish commercially is considerably more than $400.”
The group wants the private sales and transfers of these licenses to stop. It also wants the General Assembly to send H.B. 983 to Mr. McCrory. This is a currently shelved bill to declare three fish species (red drum, speckled trout and estuarine striped bass) gamefish, making them available only to recreational fishermen.
According to General Assembly staff, historically budget bills have had sections sent to various standing committees in the House, such as the House Appropriations Committee. Staff in the office of Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said, as of Monday, the House hasn’t officially received the budget bill yet.
The new commercial fishing fund was first proposed Feb. 21, when Mr. Schill presented the MFC with the proposal at their regular meeting. The fund’s purpose is to enhance commercial fishing in North Carolina, provide funding for developing sustainable commercial fishing and for programs required by the state’s federal incidental take permits, such as the DMF’s observer program.
The fund would be created by increases to several commercial fishing and fish dealer licenses. The NCFA proposed the added revenue would be put into the fund, which would be overseen by a board consisting of members from multiple fishing organizations.
According to the Senate budget bill, the Senate proposes a board consisting of members from six organizations the association had chosen:
•N.C. Watermen United.
•Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association.
•Albemarle Fishermen’s Association.
•Carteret County Fishermen’s Association.
•Brunswick County Fishermen’s Association.
To provide the Commercial Fishing Fund with revenue, the Senate’s bill includes a number of increases to permits and fees. These include:
•Raising Standard Commercial Fishing Licenses from $250 to $400.
•Raising Recreational Commercial Fishing Licenses from $125 for residents and $162.50 for non-residents to $200 for both.
•Raising shellfishing licenses from $31.25 to $50.
•Raising fish dealer licenses from $62.50 to $100.
•Raising land-or-sell licenses for out-of-state vessels from $250 to $400.
•Raising Recreational Commercial Gear Licenses for residents from $43.75 to $70.
The Senate’s bill says the fund would get half of the increased prices for each sale of those licenses. At these amounts, however, the revenue not going to the commercial fishing fund from licenses would actually be decreased.
Also, according to a report from the Senate Appropriations/Base Budget Committee made May 29, general fund support for the DMF observer program would be eliminated. This means the program would rely entirely on the commercial fishing fund.
These aren’t the only DMF budget cuts in the bill, either. According to the Appropriations Committee’s report, the DMF Nags Head office would close. Two of the five positions there would be switched to home-based operations. An occupied environmental health specialist position, an occupied environmental senior technician position and a vacant microbiology lab technician position would all be eliminated.
In addition to closing the office, the Senate bill also proposes eliminating three of the 29 staff positions in the DMF Shellfish Sanitation and Water Quality Section.
Drew Elliot, communications director for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said these cuts are nearly identical to ones in Mr. McCrory’s budget proposal.
“We support the governor’s budget, including this provision,” he said. “Every cabinet agency, and thus every division in DENR, was asked to bring forth ways to cut its budget since revenue actuals fell short of projections for the current two-year budget cycle (July 1, 2013-June 30, 2015).”
While DMF staff will continue inspections for seafood processing plants in the northeast area of the state, Mr. Elliot said closing the office will result in closing Albemarle Sound, Currituck Sound, Alligator River, upper Pungo River, upper Neuse River and part of Pamlico River to shellfish harvesting.
“These waters will no longer be tested or surveyed for shoreline pollution sources,” he said. “Environmental conditions in these waters, such as salinity levels, are not conducive to growing oysters and clams. Little or no shellfish harvest occurs in these areas currently.”
Areas not closed to shellfishing will continue to be sampled and surveyed by DMF staff, however. Mr. Elliot also said recreational water quality monitoring would continue, and space would be made in the DMF Manteo office for recreational water quality testing.
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email email@example.com; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.