MOREHEAD CITY — While the eyes of most shrimp trawl operators are set squarely on an Aug. 28-30 Raleigh meeting in which the state N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission is expected to vote on a petition to ban trawling in inshore waters, the future of shrimping rules is also being discussed by the commission’s Shrimp Fishery Management Plan Advisory Committee.
That committee, composed of commercial and recreational fishermen, is set to meet at 6 p.m. Thursday in Morehead City. The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, parent agency of the commission and its committees, has taken the unusual step of holding the meeting in the larger meeting room downstairs in the Crystal Coast Civic Center instead of upstairs in the normal small room.
The nine-member panel will take public comments. Patricia Smith, spokesman for the division, said there’s usually no time limit for public comments during meetings of the committee, but that might not be the case this time. She said if a large number of attendees sign up to speak, each speaker might be limited to three minutes.
The anti-inside trawling petition, submitted by New Bern recreational fishermen Tim Hergenrader, was the subject of a joint meeting of four of the MFC’s other advisory committees last month; all four voted overwhelmingly to recommend it be denied.
That degree of opposition, plus strong opposition from the shrimpers and other commercial fishermen, most likely means the MFC will reject the petition. The petition asks the state to designate the inside waters as secondary nursery areas, an existing classification in which trawling is prohibited.
Petition opponents believe that some petition supporters – who cited bycatch of juvenile finfish in trawls as the reason for the proposed inshore ban – will attempt to use the fisheries management plan update process to try to accomplish the same goal through different means. By law, the MFC must have management plans in place for all commercially significant marine species, and those plans must be updated every five years. The shrimp plan update could go to the fisheries commission for a vote as early as its November meeting.
After the joint committee meeting on the petition last month, Jerry Schill, a New Bern resident and former head of the N.C. Fisheries Association, a commercial fishermen’s trade and lobbying group based in Pamlico County, said watermen may feel relieved by a likely commission vote against the petition. However, he said that means they might become passive and accept overly harsh additional restrictions on trawling through the shrimp management plan amendment process.
Potential measures to restrict trawling traditionally include such things as limiting the length of tows; limiting the length of trawl headropes; closing areas at specific times; and limiting harvest days.
The agenda for the committee meeting includes:
• Characterization of the North Carolina Commercial Shrimp Trawl Fleet (head rope lengths, number of nets and vessel lengths).
• Area restrictions to reduce shrimp trawl bycatch in North Carolina’s internal coastal waters.
• Removal of the shrimp trawl from the recreational commercial gear license.
• Public comment.
• Discussion of selection of management options.
The committee staff includes Trish Murphey, division biologist supervisor; Chris Stewart, division biologist and Sgt. Dean Nelson of the central division of the N.C. Marine Patrol.
Sean McKeon, NCFA director, said he expects a significant number of shrimpers will show up for the committee meeting to hear the discussion and comment. However, he said he hopes the committee, the commission and the division will decide against further restrictions on the industry, which has long been required to use fish excluder devices.
The shrimp plan committee has two other meetings scheduled, on Sept. 11 and 18, both at the civic center.
Ms. Smith said that when the proposed plan goes to the MFC, that panel would also accept public comment. She also said any proposed rules that might arise from a plan the commission adopts must also go through the public hearing process.