Few policy battles in the past decade have been as hotly debated as those involving changes to the state’s commercial fishing industry. The latest in the series could be the most heated yet.
On Tuesday, five advisory committees to the state’s Marine Fisheries Commission meet in New Bern to hear from the public on a proposal that would place a sweeping array of new restrictions on shrimp trawling in North Carolina waters. The changes cover far more than the mechanics of trawling, which uses hundreds of feet of mesh net dragged behind trawl boats to capture swaths of shrimp.
The proposed change, which came via a rule-making petition from the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, would designate all coastal fishing waters as special secondary nursery areas, eliminate nighttime trawling, and tighten rules on allowable gear and trawling times, including elimination of some spring and summer months. A modification of the petition, submitted last week, would permit trawling to three days per week for inland waters and four days a week for the Atlantic Ocean.
The Wildlife Federation, which has the backing of other conservation groups as well as powerful recreational fishing interests, wants to reduce the bycatch of croaker and other fish. Bycatch is the term for fish caught in the nets along with the shrimp, sorted out and discarded. The federation contends that high bycatch levels are depleting stocks and affecting the costal ecosystem. Its petition says more than fifteen million pounds of juvenile croaker, spot, and other fish were discarded in state waters in 2014 alone.
Shrimpers say the proposed rules are so drastic that they could spell the end of the local fishing industry in North Carolina. The rules are seen as a first step in the elimination of taking shrimp in inland waters, including the Pamlico Sound, one the most fertile fisheries in the state. Shrimp is North Carolina’s second most valuable seafood behind blue crabs. In 2015, more than nine million pounds of shrimp were harvested bringing in an estimated $16.8 million.
NC Catch, a partnership of local fishing groups, has been raising awareness about the change and what it might mean for consumers and restaurants and making the case that the reduction of locally caught shrimp means greater reliance on imported shrimp. The organization is directing consumers to an online petition started by a concerned coastal citizen.
The state’s waters support three shrimp fisheries, known best for the distinction in color — pink, brown, and white—with harvest running from spring until fall. NC Catch’s analysis of the impact of trawling ban between mid-May and mid-August would eliminate the spring pink shrimp harvest and greatly reduce the late summer brown shrimp harvest.
Both sides will make their case starting at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at the New Bern Convention Center.