North Carolina’s commercial fishing industry received a “shot across the bow” metaphorically this week when the N.C. Marine Fishery Commission considered a proposal to close over 69,000 acres of prime shrimping grounds for commercial shrimp trawling. Fortunately, the proposal was amended and approved by a slim margin (5-4), which means that the industry was not only saved from almost certain elimination, but also that millions of N.C. consumers can continue to have access to local, wild caught seafood.
After two days of public hearings during which few participants voiced any support for the proposed closures, the commission voted 5-4 to include an additional 10,000 acres to the existing 1 million acres already closed to shrimp trawling. North Carolina has over 2.1 million acres of inland fishing grounds so the added 10,000 acres results in the state commercial industry being restricted to utilizing only 50% of the state’s resources.
Ostensibly the proposed closure, had it been approved, would have shut down approximately 119 small independent commercial shrimpers whose vessels, ranging 35-50 feet in length, are too small to trawl in the open ocean. But, as the large number of speakers noted during the Marine Fisheries Commission meeting noted, the closure would have far greater impact.
State Sen. Bob Steinberg, R-Chowan, attending the meeting as a representative of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, correctly identified the DMF’s proposal as a “death by a thousand cuts.”
Throughout the meeting the speakers stressed the economic impact of the closure, noting that not only would it put the small operators out of business but there would be a ripple effect, with a variety of other small businesses that support the trawling industry also being devastated.
Newport Mayor Dennis Barber offered an even more important impact, pointing out that the closure would result in a loss to access of fresh, local wild caught seafood for millions of consumers. The mayor pointed to a package of farm raised shrimp imported from South America, noting that this will be the only access to shrimp for millions of consumers, within and outside the state. During his comments he raised concerns about the quality control to assure consumer safety.
Reporter Megan Howell of The Fish Site noted that a recent paper published in Aquaculture Reports “suggests that shrimp imports to the US are falling short of consumer safety standards. Researchers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana went to multiple grocery stores in the region and purchased a variety of fresh and frozen shrimp products originating from Vietnam, Thailand, Ecuador, China, India, Indonesia and Bangladesh. They then screened the shrimp for sulphite exposure and veterinary antibiotics that have been banned in the US.”
Compounding the egregious nature of the DMF proposal was the lack of good data to support the division’s recommendations. To support the proposed closing the division staff provided a public survey to be used for guidance in making the closure determination. The survey, posted on the DMF website and publicized there and in news releases, garnered 378 responses from across the state over the 30 days it was available for review.
The public was asked to identify on a published map which regions should be closed permanently or seasonally, if trawl headrope lengths should be limited, should access to non-trawl gear be allowed, preference for farm raised versus wild caught shrimp, designation of critical habitats areas, and designation of secondary nursery areas.
All of these questions lacked any details requiring the respondents to know something about trawling and marine biology, a filter that was not required to provide answers.
But the most glaring question in the survey was a question asking the public for guidance on bycatch, those species caught unintentionally in the shrimp trawls. It is worth noting that the division itself has no knowledge of the quantity of bycatch resulting from shrimp trawling and yet they asked the public for guidance. This begs the question, where’s the data for making that decision?
Dr. Chris Elkins, president of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), a national organization that is pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the state to shut down much of the state’s commercial fishing industry, argued that the trawlers are creating an “obscene” amount of bycatch. He too provided no quantity data to back up his charge.
But he did provide the ultimate reason for shutting down inland trawling in the state and that is competition that the CCA contends exists between the commercial and recreational fishermen for access to fish. “The value of North Carolina recreational fishing dwarfs commercial fishing,” he said, “yet most of the economic discussion here is on commercial fishing, rather than the golden goose of recreational fishing.”
That is the shot, the closure of the commercial fishing industry to enhance the recreational fishing industry, that missed its target in this week’s Marine Fisheries Commission meeting, but only by a slim margin - one vote.
This isn’t the last effort the commercial fishing industry will see. The special interest groups have now made the Division of Marine Fisheries their new ally, as has been seen in the past week’s meeting. Both the commercial fishing industry and the public stand to lose unless there is a greater expression from the largest stakeholder in the debate - the consumers who will be denied access to local fresh wild-caught seafood.