RALEIGH — A proposed referendum for net bans and restrictions missed the state legislature’s crossover deadline, but its very introduction has caused alarm among some commercial fishing officials.
State Rep. Bill Richardson, D-Cumberland, introduced House Bill 513 to the legislature April 8. While the bill failed to make it to the state Senate by the General Assembly’s crossover week deadline, May 10-14, the fact it was proposed was enough to spark concern with commercial fishing advocates and a local marine biologist.
N.C. Fisheries Association Executive Director and commercial fisherman Glenn Skinner and Crystal Coast Ecotours owner and operator Jess Hawkins have voiced their opposition to the proposed referendum and to the net restrictions. As written, the referendum would have been on the November 2022 General Election ballot.
“We (NCFA) don’t think the bill is going anywhere,” Mr. Skinner said in an interview Thursday with the News-Times. “Our biggest concern is you have any representatives in Raleigh willing to sign their name to a bill with no scientific evidence to back it up.”
Mr. Hawkins, a former N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries marine biologist and former N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission member, echoed those concerns Friday.
“I think it’s not a wise way to govern natural resources in North Carolina,” he said, referring to putting fishing regulations to a referendum. “We should use science to govern resources.”
Not everyone is opposed to the measures in the bill, however. Coastal Conservation Association North Carolina Executive Director David Sneed said in a May 28 statement on the association’s news blog the organization “wholeheartedly supports the idea of a net referendum bill.”
“We thank Reps. Richardson, Lucas and Yarborough for introducing this legislation,” Mr. Sneed said. “Entanglement gill nets are highly destructive and unsustainable gears. Shrimp trawls kill hundreds of millions of juvenile finfish as bycatch in their nets every ears, leading to the depletion of our coastal fish stocks.”
According to the language in H.B. 513, the November 2022 ballot would include a referendum asking if voters were for or against “limits on marine net fishing in order to protect saltwater finfish, shellfish and other marine animals from unnecessary killing, overfishing and waste.”
H.B. 513’s amendments would prohibit gill nets and other “entangling” nets from North Carolina’s coastal fishing waters. It would also limit other types of nets to 500 square feet of mesh area in state coastal fishing waters, limit vessels to two nets and persons on vessels to one net.
Both Mr. Skinner and Mr. Hawkins said other states have enacted similar bans and claimed these measures haven’t stopped overfishing.
“It’s driven by political science, not fisheries science,” Mr. Skinner said. “My initial response (to concerns about overfishing) is to look at the other states that have implemented these bans. It hasn’t ended overfishing. You talk to the fisheries managers in these states, and they say it hasn’t prevented it.”
As a specific example, Mr. Hawkins cited management in Florida.
“It caused a lot of (commercial) fishermen to be displaced and a lot of stress and reduced public access to local seafood,” he said. “They found in Florida the fishing mortality in some species simply shifted from commercial to recreational (fishing).”
Mr. Sneed, however, said in his May 28 statement “removing unsustainable and highly destructive gears from coastal waters creates a healthy resource that, like a rising tide, floats all boats.”
While H.B. 513 didn’t make the crossover deadline, a net ban/restriction referendum could be reintroduced at a later date or added to an existing bill. Mr. Skinner said he hopes voters “would have enough sense not to hurt food productivity.”
“If it passed, it would be devastating to the commercial fishing (industry),” he said. “Gill nets are one of our main types of gear.”
Mr. Hawkins agreed.
“Netting is a way of providing a healthy food source,” he said. “(A net ban) would affect access to that product to consumers. Gill netting activity (in North Carolina) has been reduced to half of what it was in recent years, due to increased restrictions.”
Rather than putting it to a referendum, Mr. Hawkins is in favor of using the state’s existing fisheries management system, in which the MFC creates regulations with scientific data the DMF gathers, taking proposed regulations to public hearing before deciding what to adopt.
“A lot of states use this model,” Mr. Hawkins said. “Our country has one of the most effective fisheries management systems in the world.”
Mr. Sneed, meanwhile, thinks a referendum is a valid way of managing fisheries.
“The citizens of North Carolina should be allowed the opportunity, through a statewide referendum, to voice their support for ending the destruction so that a rebuilding of our public trust resources can take place, to be enjoyed by all North Carolinians, including our future generations,” he said.
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-723-7353, email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.