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Fish Wars, Part I: The decades-long battle over North Carolina fisheries

As a recreational fishing guide with a family of commercial fishers, Matt Littleton straddles both sides of the debate.
Grace Vitaglione
As a recreational fishing guide with a family of commercial fishers, Matt Littleton straddles both sides of the debate.

The fish swimming in the coastal waters of North Carolina belong to the people — they're a public resource. But how the state balances the use of that resource by commercial and recreational fishermen is a contentious issue, made more difficult by the challenge of accurately tracking how many fish are in the water.

Matt Littleton has been fishing all his life.

He grew up in a commercial fishing family and now works as a recreational fishing guide in Swansboro, but he also fishes commercially on the side.

“I remember going shrimping a lot when we were little,” he said. “That used to just be the most fun in the world to me was dragging a net, dumping everything on the cold table, and then going through there and picking everything out.”

Related — Fish wars: The decades-old battle over North Carolina's fisheries (The Newsroom)

For many people, fishing is an emotionally-charged issue; Matt associates it with family memories and traditions. But fishing is also a highly controversial field of government regulation. On one side, commercial fishermen. On the other, recreational fishermen. Both accuse the other side of taking more than their share.

Fred Scharf, a fisheries biology professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said the two sides tend to distrust each other.

“Both groups are guilty of just putting out a lot of propaganda to try to sway public opinion toward their side,” he said.

In the latest stage of this battle, the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina (CCA-NC) filed a 2020 lawsuit against the state for failing to properly manage fisheries as a public resource.

The recreational fishing and conservation advocacy group claims the state allowed commercial interests to rule fishery management, causing a decline in fish populations and unfair regulations on recreational fishing.

The lawsuit says this is partly because the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, the state agency involved in fishery management, was originally focused on economic development, not on conservation — and CCA-NC’s argument is that the agency is run with that same mindset today.

For more on the lawsuit, read part II of this investigation. 

Meanwhile, commercial fishermen often say they are overly regulated while recreational fishers run rampant.

Scharf said this conflict can make it hard to pass management policy.

“It is the single biggest impediment to successful fishery management in North Carolina,” he said.

There are worries on both sides that there won’t be fish left for future generations. But commercial fisherman Sammy Corbett said each side is too focused on their share.

“They're not talking about saving the fisheries. They're talking about how can they get a bigger allocation of the fish,” he said.

Declining stocks

Fish stocks are monitored by the government to ensure stewardship of a public resource. The fish in North Carolina’s seas belong to the entire population, not just specific fishermen. That’s why agencies try to understand whether specific species are being overfished.

A few definitions: Overfishing means the current rate of removing fish — through harvest and discards — is too high. Overfishing over time leads to a stock becoming overfished, which means the population is too small to be sustainable.

The most recent North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) data for each stock found that numerous fish species managed by the state are both overfished — meaning historically fishermen have impacted the fish stocks — and experiencing overfishing: southern flounder, striped mullet, and estuarine striped bass, at least in the Albermarle Sound/Roanoke River area.

Spotted seatrout is not overfished right now, but overfishing was occurring in 2019. River herring remains overfished although overfishing is not occurring.

That all sounds complicated, but the bottom line is: a lot of fish populations in the state have been destabilized, so fewer fish can be caught. And for some species, the younger fish are being caught before they can reproduce, which is a threat to long-term viability across the population. Others face similar problems threatening long-term stability of the species.

How did we get here?

While the Division of Marine Fisheries monitors fish st, policy decisions are made by the Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC). And that body doesn’t always follow the recommendations of the state scientists.

The nine-member MFC has an equal number of recreational and commercial fishermen seats, as well as a science seat and two “at large” seats for those otherwise involved in the fishing industry. Members are appointed by the Governor.

UNCW Professor Fred Scharf serves on an advisory committee for the MFC. He said that the commission tends to support open access to the fishery.

That access, he said, has “probably historically been more commercial, because North Carolina has had sort of larger and more robust commercial fisheries than several of the other southern states.”

But as the recreational fishing industry has ballooned, that means their impact on the fish has grown. Meanwhile, commercial fishing is growing less popular.

From 1994 to 2021, commercial fishing trips decreased annually by 66%. Recreational trip estimates have increased by 70% in that same time.

According to the DMF, there are currently an estimated 1.5 million recreational licenses in North Carolina, while there are under 6,000 commercial licenses, less than half of which are active.

Former DMF Director Louis Daniel says the policy-making commission, the MFC, has generally supported short-term economics over long-term sustainability.

“The recommendations of the Division were very rarely ever implemented, because it would have been too much of an impact on the extractor,” he said.

Another possible factor in fish decline is environmental factors like rising water temperatures and increasing development on shores.

Tracking the harvest

A major sticking point for recreational and commercial fishing groups is a blame game: who has caught how much? Whose fault is it that stocks are in decline?

The DMF does track stocks using their own data and data from fishermen. Scharf said the former involves surveying fish across varying sites.

Some commercial fishermen distrust this data because they’ll see scientists fishing in areas where they know there aren’t any fish–but that’s actually the point.

“When the population’s really abundant, there will be fish here. Because they can’t all fit in the good habitats, the good habitats are full,” Scharf said. “When the population’s really dense, those habitats get full and they spill over to these other habitats.”

As for the data from the fishermen: commercial fishermen’s harvests are reported when they sell their catch to a seafood dealer.

Recreational fishermen receive randomized mail surveys. They can also be interviewed by fishery officials about their catch at public boat ramps, in what’s called an MRIP survey: Marine Recreational Information Program.

But many commercial fishermen, like Dewey Hemilright, take issue with that method. He said, “the data that's produced from the recreational industry is nowhere near the precision of what's produced on the commercial.”

He also claims the DMF reports on tracking recreational harvests show high amounts of error and don’t capture enough data.

For example, a recreational fisherman may use a private access instead of a public boat ramp–meaning they wouldn’t be interviewed in person.

Recreational fishing guide Matt Littleton has been on both sides: working commercially and recreationally in fishing. He said recording his commercial catches is under a much stricter system than recreational.

However, despite commercial fishermen's claims that recreational reports are off, the data doesn’t back that up for most species.

An independent review of the survey in 2017 found that the survey has improved vastly over time.

As for the surveys, they use standard data review practices, and only one species that’s overfished saw a high standard of error in the last 10 years.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) monitors over 400 fishing stocks. A NOAA pokesperson told WHQR, “our staff practice extensive quality control measures before our estimates are published, checking for errors in data entry and investigating any unusual changes.”

Commercial license reform

Stephen Poland, the chief of fisheries management for DMF, said that the commercial numbers can also be flawed.

More than half of commercial licenses are inactive, but that doesn’t mean those fishermen aren’t fishing. Catches are tracked when they’re sold to a dealer — otherwise those catches wouldn’t be tracked.

When Louis Daniel was director of the DMF, he advocated that the government weed out inactive licenses to prevent illegal activity.

“If you were to do the license reform, and limit it to the people who are actually making a living selling seafood, I believe personally that those people are going to be your good players,” he said.

But MFC Chair Rob Bizzell said weeding out inactive licenses require legislation from the General Assembly.

“I have personally been told by some members of the General Assembly over the last six years, that if it has fur, fins, or feathers, they don't want to talk about it. Because it's just too controversial,” he said.

The DMF surveyed commercial license holders to ask why some may not report their catches. Most people said they were using the license to catch fish with commercial gear for personal consumption or donation.

Matt Littleton said another reason people hold onto licenses is because they can eventually sell them.

“Essentially it’s a $3,000 savings bond," he said.

Looking at methodology

From the DMF's point of view, Poland said what really matters is how stock numbers look over time — that is, how they are showing trends in population.

“It's really no different than how meteorologists collect the atmospheric information and try to guess where the hurricane’s going,” he said.

Some commercial fishermen say the assessments can make fish populations look more imperiled than they really are.

But independent observers stand by North Carolina’s strategies for assessing fish stocks. Mark Fisher, science director at Texas Parks and Wildlife, was on the peer review panel for the most recent North Carolina DMF stock status assessment on spotted seatrout. He’s seen quite a few assessments in his work.

“The methods that North Carolina uses are actually solid. They’re pretty standard,” he said. And, he added, if the science in an assessment isn’t sound, the peer review panel would reject the assessment.

Still, commercial fishermen have a point in their concerns, because fishery management is a new and inexact science. Counting fish is a hard thing to do — they don’t exactly line up for scientists to find them.

But if commercial fishermen take issue with the state’s counts, why is a group supporting recreational fishing, the CCA NC, suing the state?

Read Part II of this investigation to learn more about the lawsuit, why fish stocks in North Carolina are declining, and what can be done about it.

Related — Fish Wars, Part II: Concerns about, and possible changes to, North Carolina's fishery management practices

Grace is a multimedia journalist recently graduated from American University. She's attracted to issues of inequity and her reporting has spanned racial disparities in healthcare, immigration detention and college culture. In the past, she's investigated ICE detainee deaths at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, worked on an award-winning investigative podcast, and produced student-led video stories.