More than just the livelihood of approximately 119 small, independent commercial fishing businesses stand to be hurt by a proposed N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) recommendation closing large swaths of inland waters to shrimping. This decision will have a negative impact on the primary stakeholders of this fishery- hundreds of thousands of consumers who enjoy fresh, local wild caught seafood.
Citing the need to reduce the bycatch of fish that are unintentionally caught in the process of shrimp trawling, the DMF announced it will recommend to the state’s Marine Fisheries Council next week that over 69,000 acres of prime inland shrimping waters be closed to shrimping. Most of the closure involves all of the Carteret County sounds and rivers, which will leave only Pamlico Sound as the primary shrimping area for the time being.
The DMF proposal, entitled Amendment 2 to the state’s Shrimp Fisheries Management Plan, notes that the shrimp fishery is “consistently one of the top two commercial fisheries by value” in the state. In 2019 this fishery had a “dockside value of over $22 million, generating a state-wide sales impact of nearly $100 million, including an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 jobs annually.” Not noted in this report is the consumer benefit of the fishery which is difficult to quantify.
If this proposal is accepted by marine fisheries commissioners it will be submitted for review by the legislature and the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality with a final vote by the commission early next year.
In the proposed amendment the division staff estimates it will impact approximately 119 small operators who operate small vessels (30-50 feet in length) that seldom operate in the ocean. In 2019 the smaller shrimpers recorded a little less than a half-million pounds in shrimp, valued at just under $700,000.
While these small operators account for less than 4% of the fishery they represent a major community value. Most of them support other small businesses and community programs that will subsequently be out of business if the amendment passes. An example would be the roadside vendors that sell fresh, local wild caught fish, which further enhances the state’s image just as local farmers do at roadside stands.
The public will feel the pinch as well. Because of the loss of the small operators there will be less competitive pressure on pricing among the large operators other than from farm raised seafood which has its own down side.
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.”
With only passing concern about the impact on the industry, the communities they serve and consumers, the DMF and its commission members have been quietly considering this major shrimp closure for months with little public disclosure other than the announced consideration for a vote at the commission’s Nov. 17-19 meeting. Now, with only two weeks’ notice, the small commercial shrimpers must stop their operation at the peak of the season to review all the scientific data, much of which is being maintained by the very agency proposing the closures, and prepare to contest the conclusion.
At the same time the Division of Marine Fisheries is proposing the closure of the inland shrimp trawling, it is engaged in a lawsuit with the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) which contends that the division is not fulfilling its duties in managing inland and coastal fisheries.
The organization of recreational fishermen opposes the use of nets, with the exception of cast nets for catching bait fish, contending that commercial net gear contributes to the loss of juvenile fish unintentionally caught in the nets as bycatch. The CCA lawsuit argues that “the state has for decades tolerated overfishing of flounder and other species of coastal fish valued by the fishing public.”
“The fishing public” is the key phrase in the argument. While there are tens of thousands of recreational fishermen there are exponentially more North Carolinians and tourists who enjoy eating seafood but who are not recreational anglers. That stakeholder group is not being considered in the lawsuit or the most recent marine fisheries shrimp plan.
One theory being offered about the DMF proposal is that it is sacrificing a small portion of the trawling industry to mitigate the CCA arguments. But this will do little to dissuade the plaintiffs; it will embolden them instead.
As one observer noted in Sunday’s News-Times article about this shrimp management plan, “it puts the little man out of business.” But it won’t stop there. Metaphorically speaking, the efforts to control and eventually close down small shrimp operators is akin to the “canary in the coal mine.” Once this fishery is eliminated, then others will soon be targeted and successfully closed, resulting in less access by the public to fresh, wild caught seafood from the state’s waters. It is the public that stands to be the ultimate loser in this decision.