Morehead City, N.C.

Jan. 9, 2013


I share with the readership of the News-Times a tale of the loss of an old friend. This former acquaintance at one time employed hundreds of Carteret County residents in its endeavors. A myriad of others were hired to build its vessels, supply fuel to these vessels, stock its galleys with food, machine its engine parts, mend its nets and truck its production.

Wages paid by this benefactor put food on many a family’s table, paid the light bill, put shoes on children’s feet and no doubt sent many offspring to college. In a coastal sense, this old friend is now a mere shell of its former self, yet despite its beneficence in its former life, in 2012 it was formally banned from North Carolina waters. I’m talking of course about the purse seine fishery for menhaden in the coastal waters of North Carolina.   

The forces that brought about this banishment are formidable but patient.  Several events in recent years aided their quest. First, Beaufort Fisheries Inc, the last menhaden company in North Carolina, closed in 2005 and sold the property on Front Street to a developer. Second, Jule Wheatly, former president/manager of Beaufort Fisheries Inc. and a person of considerable political influence locally and in Raleigh, passed away in October 2011. Third, the membership of the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) has changed dramatically in recent years from a body weighted with a majority of members with commercial fisheries leanings to one weighted more toward those with recreational fishing interests. (I will refer to the current caucus of five MFC members with recreational agendas as the Gang of Five, that is, they comprise a majority of the nine-member MFC.)

In spring 2012, by a five to four decision, the Gang of Five on the MFC evicted menhaden vessels from fishing in North Carolina waters. One would think that people entrusted with oversight of the marine resources for our state would predicate their decisions on good science and fair judgment.  On the contrary, the premeditated decision to bring to a vote the prohibition of menhaden purse seining was at best supported by innuendo and hearsay. To further seal the menhaden fishery’s fate in the Old North State, the legislature in Raleigh this past summer passed S.L. 2012-190 “[making] it unlawful to take menhaden or Atlantic thread herring with a purse seine net [in North Carolina waters].” Specious bills like this never made it out of committee when Mr. Wheatly was alive.  

Proponents of these bans on menhaden fishing will have you believe that their actions are in the best interests of the conservation of marine fishes. I, however, believe that there are other motives afoot. The light, so to speak, went on for me during a seemingly innocent encounter in the mid-1990s with a friend in the Charlotte airport. My friend and his wife owned an outboard motor shop in Morehead City. They had sold so many units that year that the outboard manufacturer was sending this couple and many more like them — who had exceeded a certain high level of sales — on a vacation to the islands. As my friend and I chatted at the gate from which he was to depart, outboard dealers and their spouses from all over the Southeastern U.S. began trickling in. I was introduced to several. I vividly recall meeting an outboard dealer from Georgetown, S.C. After some pleasantries, the Palmetto state dealer asked my friend point blank, “Sir, when are you folks in North Carolina going to get one of those net bans in your state?” My friend said he had heard some rumbling about net bans in North Carolina, but that the effort had not gained much traction. The gentleman from Georgetown then said, “You need to get one of those net bans up there, and I guarantee that you will double, if not triple, yours sales!”

That encounter was a watershed moment for me as it revealed that many campaigns designed to restrict and/or and prohibit marine commercial fishing nets and practices are not necessarily driven so much by conservation intents as they are by the economic interests of net ban proponents. One only needs to read Robert Fritchey’s Wetland Riders to see how this battle between recreational and commercial factions played out in Texas and Louisiana several decades ago, much to the detriment of commercial fishermen.

In summary, recreational interests on the MFC and in the legislature have banned menhaden purse seine fishing from North Carolina waters — check one item off their list.  While self-serving, this move was also short sighted as it effectively excludes purse seining for menhaden for bait, which is in short supply for blue crab fishermen — not to mention expensive when trucked from out-of-state suppliers. However, this is another story for another day.

The MFC will soon begin discussions on bycatch in the North Carolina shrimp trawl fishery. Those with interests in the commercial fisheries of North Carolina are advised to pay close attention to the MFC’s deliberations. Widespread net bans are no doubt further down the agenda list, but after all, these folks may “double, if not triple, [their] sales!”


(1) comment


When the menhaden fishery was at its height in the 1950's 60's and 70's, there were menhaden boats everywhere you looked in Beaufort. Three factories going full time in the fall of the year, and boats fishing locally year round. There were also a seemingly unlimited number of fish; I can remember seeing the color of schools from my skiff and pogies whipping all over the place. Then along came the "Crystal Coast" in the early 1980's. Factories shut down and there were only a couple of boats fishing locally. After many years of extreme housing development (not only on our waterfront, but up and down the coast), the fish stocks are in trouble. There is an exponentially smaller number of boats still fishing, yet this is the cause of the fish decline? Why haven't the pogy stocks declined in the Gulf where most menhaden fishing is done now? The cause of our problems are not the commercial fishing, but the crazy development we allowed on our shores. There are documented studies that the cause of the fish decline is the shortage of valuable wetland nurseries due to being poisoned by the fertilizer, sewage and utter filth that too many people generate. Yet I guarantee there will be no regulation in that regard. The wealthy want their water front homes and to selfishly own all rights to the ocean. Sounds like they finally got what they wanted. You may want to get used to imported and farm produced seafood.

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