NEW BERN — Tim Hergenrader’s petition that could push shrimp trawls out of coastal waters has no support from either the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries or the Marine Fisheries Commission’s advisory committees.
Fishermen showed their opposition on Tuesday as well, with nearly two dozen fish captains anchoring their commercial vessels in the Neuse River in protest and more than 600 people attending a public hearing on the petition at the New Bern Riverfront Convention Center.
After that hearing, the MFC advisory committees for Habitat and Water Quality, Finfish, Sea Turtles and Shellfish/Crustaceans all passed motions recommending the MFC deny Mr. Hergenrader’s petition. Each committee voted separately to recommend rejecting the petition, with one dissenting vote from the shellfish committee and one abstention from the sea turtle committee.
The petition will now go to the MFC, along with the advisory committee recommendations to deny it, at the commission’s Aug. 28-30 meeting in Raleigh.
Dr. Louis Daniel, director of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries – the state agency that enforces regulations created by the MFC – said not only did the petition lack the data to back it up, but taking the action it requests would leave out important scientific studies from the rulemaking process.
Mr. Hergenrader, a New Bern resident who had supported the gamefish bill – a measure proposed in the state General Assembly that didn’t advance to reserve three species of fish in North Carolina’s waters solely for
recreational anglers – filed a petition June 20. This petition proposed reclassifying most internal coastal waters as secondary nursery areas because juveniles of three finfish species – weakfish, croaker and spot – were found there being caught as bycatch in trawls.
This would mean the waters would be declared areas where pre-adult marine species lived and developed; these areas are off-limits to trawls, which are the primary fishing gear used to commercially harvest shrimp in North Carolina.
North Carolina commercial fishermen, as well as local business owners, coastal residents and others, have been strongly opposed to this petition and made that clear Tuesday.
Onlookers at Union Point Park watched as trawlers from Wanchese, Harkers Island, Gloucester and more fishing communities anchored off the park in the Neuse River as a sign of their protest.
At the meeting itself, about 650 people came to hear or provide public comments and to see the committees make their recommendations to the MFC. Of those people, about 58 provided public comment, all but two of them openly opposing the petition.
“This petition circumvents the fishery management plan process and violates the Fisheries Reform Act,” said Jonathan Robinson, a Carteret County commissioner from the Down East community of Atlantic. “Over the last 20 years, we’ve lost 400 jobs in Carteret County. We can’t afford this.” Mr. Robinson presented the committees with a petition of his own, one with 1,982 signatures against Mr. Hergenrader’s petition.
Jimmy Ruhle, a third generation commercial fisherman from Wanchese, said he thought the petition was a back-door attempt to attack allocations. He also said banning trawls from the coastal waters would increase the problems with oxygen depletion in deep waters – due to trawls not being there to turn over the bottom and disperse toxins – and with invasive species not getting caught.
Sherry Etheridge of Etheridge Seafood in Wanchese said the worst part of the matter was commercial fishermen were being made to feel like they’re expendable.
“It would be nice if fisheries supported us,” she said.
Sam Meadows, Cedar Point Mayor Pro Tem, said he’d heard of areas of coastal waters dying due to farm runoff and a lack of trawling turning the bottom over.
“It’s sad everyone has to meet here today to fight a petition riddled with so much misinformation,” he said. “If Pamlico Sound is closed to trawling, it won’t be long before its dead.”
Mr. Hergenrader was at the meeting to formally present his petition.
“Contrary to what some are saying,” he said, “this petition isn’t about ending shrimp fishing in North Carolina or denying people access to fresh, locally caught shrimp. It’s only about nursery designation.”
Mr. Hergenrader said while this would declare all coastal waters secondary nursery areas, it wouldn’t end shrimp trawling in North Carolina because it wouldn’t impact ocean trawling.
During their questioning of Mr. Hergenrader, several committee members seemed hostile, asking him if he knew how many people would be impacted by the proposals and about its legality. Mr. Hergenrader said the state Attorney General had told him the petition was appropriate and that other states on the East Coast had moved trawling outside of state waters.
Despite Mr. Hergenrader saying his petition is based on DMF data, Dr. Daniel, DMF director, said the data doesn’t support declaring all internal coastal waters as secondary nursery areas. He also said the proposal would undermine the currently existing nursery areas.
“For these (coastal waters) to be defined as such, they need to undergo extensive survey and study by the DMF,” Dr. Daniel said. “We have a rigorous statistical analysis; we haven’t been able to complete the surveys for these areas.”
Dr. Daniel said the areas currently not part of the nursery areas are open areas of North Carolina’s sounds. He said any consideration of adding to the nursery areas should be done through scientific sampling and analysis, which he said the petition didn’t provide.
“We (the DMF) also recommend that we should continue addressing bycatch issues through the Coastal Habitat Protection Plan and the Shrimp Fishery Management Plan,” he said.
The committees also heard testimony from Connell Purvis, former DMF director, Dr. David Griffith of East Carolina University and his doctorate student, Dr. Rebecca Deer. Mr. Purvis said the petition was a misinterpretation of the purpose of secondary nursery areas, while Dr. Deer and Dr. Griffith said Dr. Deer’s recent dissertation showed it may be beneficial to experimentally open and close certain areas to trawling to determine the impacts, both negative and positive.
Jerry Schill of New Bern, former head of the N.C. Fisheries Association, a commercial fishermens’ trade and lobbying group based in Pamlico County, and current head of a loose coalition of fishermen called “Shrimp Defense, said after the meeting he was proud of the fishermen who came.
“We met in the convention center before the meeting,” Mr. Schill said, “and I told all the (trawler) captains they all needed to at least stand up and speak and give the names of their boats and their crew members and how many family members this (petition) would affect. They didn’t all do that, but they made their point.”
Mr. Schill said although there was a lot of emotion during the hearing, it was clear the nearly unanimous committee votes against the petition were based on evidence and influenced by the DMF’s own examination of the validity of Mr. Hergenrader’s claims. Mr. Schill also said he had advised the trawler owners not to come to New Bern with their boats, as they would have to take time off fishing, at a peak time of the year, to do so. They did it anyway, and Mr. Schill said it was a tremendous visual show of unity against the petition.
Mr. Schill said while the watermen have reason to feel good about the likely demise of the petition, they can’t let their guard down, as the fisheries division and commission are working on an update to the required shrimp management plan. He said the danger is the watermen, feeling relieved by a likely commission vote against the petition, might become passive and accept overly harsh additional restrictions on trawling through the shrimp management plan amendment process.
Mr. Schill said shrimpers have long been willing to negotiate and accept reasonable restrictions, and have for years used state-mandated excluder devices.
“North Carolina implemented the use of finfish excluder devices even before they were mandated by the National Marine Fisheries Service,” he said.
Tideland News reporter Brad Rich contributed to this story.
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.