By BRAD RICH
Tideland News Writer
Commercial fishermen and their supporters are bracing for another attempt to get the state General Assembly to place striped bass, red drum and speckled trout off limits for commercial harvest and sale.
The “game fish” bill for the three species, which has failed to win legislative approval several times since 2009, hasn’t been introduced yet this session. But the North Carolina chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, which has pushed the bill repeatedly, has left little doubt it’s going for it again, and sources say it might be introduced this week, possibly as early as today (Wednesday).
“Parker Poe, led by Bruce Thompson, and Brubaker & Associates, led by former House Speaker Harold Brubaker, are the registered lobbyists for CCANC this session,” a statement on the CCA website reads. “Their teams are already hard at work on our efforts to obtain game fish designation for red drum, spotted sea trout and striped bass.
“House Speaker Thom Tillis (Mecklenburg) has directed Representative Tom Murry (Wake) and Representative Tim Moffitt (Buncombe) to lead the game fish efforts in the North Carolina House. Through their leadership, we have been contacting both House and Senate members to gauge their support and enlist bill sponsors in both chambers.
“CCANC is encouraged by the support we are receiving, especially in the House. We recognize that the Senate will prove more challenging, as there are some Senators who have expressed support for the commercial industry on this issue. However, we are working with several members of that body to make sure that we will be ready to proceed.”
The message ended by urging CCA members to be ready “to walk the halls of the legislature with us as we make our push for game fish.”
The last version of the bill was House Bill 353, filed in 2011. It passed a first reading and was referred to Committee On Commerce and Job Development’s Subcommittee on Business and Labor. Eventually, it was withdrawn and re-referred to the full committee, where it languished.
But it was one of several issues the legislature kept alive for review last summer by the legislature’s Marine Fisheries Committee. A previous legislative panel, the Joint Legislative Study Commission on Seafood and Aquaculture, had included scientists and representatives of the commercial and recreational fishing industries, but the new panel, established last year, was comprised only of legislators.
That legislative fisheries committee, which had already met in February and March, in its final meeting in April meeting did not even discuss the legislation.
At the time, Sean McKeon, head of the N.C. Fisheries Association, the largest trade and lobbying group for commercial watermen, said he was pleased that the fisheries panel, chaired by Sen. Harry Brown, Republican-Jacksonville, and Rep. Dan McCormick, a Republican who represents Yadkin, Iredell and Surry counties, had not seen fit to give the game fish bill a push.
“I think we’ve dodged a bullet for now,” McKeon said then. “But I still wouldn’t be surprised to see the bill come up again in some form during the next session of the General Assembly.”
The CCA website indicates House Bill 353 is indeed still kicking, and provided a link to that old legislation, which in addition to making the species off limits to commercial fishermen, also provided $1 million to compensate at least some of them for lost income.
Brown, who is majority leader in the Senate, said Monday there has been no bill introduced in his chamber and so there has been no discussion “at this point.” He said he was unaware of the status of the bill on the House side.
McKeon said he had heard rumors that the bill was coming back, most likely in “stealth” fashion, attached to some other legislation, such as a bill that was introduced to increase boat license fees to help fund dredging of shallow-draft inlets.
“The CCA hired the former House speaker to lobby for them,” he said, referring to Brubaker, “and he doesn’t come cheap. They’re probably expecting more than just someone to put a new face on the organization. They want something done.
“Sadly,” added McKeon, “the Republican leadership will probably go along with this, if for no other reason than to just get it over with. They’re probably being told that, ‘Oh, the commercial fishing industry is dying anyway.’ We (commercial fishermen) have been losing friends in the General Assembly by attrition, and most of the leadership now just doesn’t seem interested in the truth about this legislation.
“We invite them to come down here and talk about it, to see what it would do, but they don’t come. This bill will probably pass in some form, if not this year, then next year, maybe in some ‘compromise’ form that won’t be a compromise. And it will be a sad day for North Carolina and for the Republican Party.
“I’m a lifelong Republican and proud of it,” McKeon continued. “But in my opinion, if they do this, the Republican Party will have become just what they said they Democrats had become: A group that is just doing what it pleases without regard to the law and to what it does to other people.
“There is no scientific justification for this legislation and there’s no biological reason and no economic reason. If this goes through – and again, I think it will – it will have been driven by a very small group of people not from this part of the state.
“They say it doesn’t matter economically to the commercial fishermen, but I don’t care if it’s just 1 percent or 2 percent of someone’s income, in these times, that matters,” McKeon added. “We have very few fish houses left and some of them are just barely hanging on. Every little bit hurts. And there’s no reason to do this, other just greed and avarice and, I guess, revenge.”
McKeon said the association, based in Pamlico County, would attempt to fight the bill in whatever form it might take, but conceded his group “does not have the resources or manpower that we used to have.”
Bill Hitchcock, a Morehead City resident, radio talk show host on WRHT, longtime supporter of commercial fishermen and opponent of the game fish bill, said Monday he is trying to galvanize opposition. He has started a Facebook page, “No to Game Fish Status,” and has been trying to alert watermen to the likelihood of the legislation resurfacing.
The CCA, he said, appears to be no longer pushing the bill as primarily a conservation measure, but as an economic one, emphasizing that the three fish are more important to the state as recreational fish for anglers than for commercial harvest.
According to the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, commercial fishermen caught 91,951 pounds of red drum in 2011, while recreational anglers caught 212,245 pounds. For striped bass, those numbers are 410,685 pounds to commercial fishermen and 2.04 million pounds to recreational anglers. And, finally, the commercial watermen caught 73,119 pounds of speckled trout compared to the 403,160 caught by the recreational sector.
The fisheries division has opposed the bill in past incarnations, as inconsistent with the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997, which established committees, comprised of representatives of various user groups, that review fisheries issues and make recommendations to the policy-making N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission. Part of the very intent of the legislation, division director Dr. Louis Daniel has said, was to get the legislature out of fisheries management, which had become increasingly controversial.
The idea, Daniel said last year, was to try as much as possible to remove politics from the equation, to rely upon science and upon the division staff and the committees to make recommendations to the commission.
Hitchcock said he and others who oppose the bill were not surprised it appears to be returning for more debate.
“We knew this (legislation) would come back at some point,” he said. “These people (the CCA) are not going to stop until they accomplish their goal, which is to get (commercial) gill nets and trawls out of the water.
“They’ve been trying in one fashion or another to do that since the 1990s. Since they haven’t been able to ban the nets, now they’re trying to ban the fish the nets catch.”
State Rep. Pat McElraft, Republican-Emerald Isle, did not return a phone call from the newspaper, nor did state Sen. Norm Sanderson, Republican-New Bern.