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

The Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina is suing the state over mismanaging the fish as a public resource.
Grace Vitaglione
The Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina is suing the state over mismanaging the fish as a public resource.

The Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina is suing the state for allegedly mismanaging a public resource — that is, fish. The organization argues that the state's fishery management program began as an economic development agency, which has colored its approach since then.

Part I of this investigation covered the debate between recreational and commercial fishermen over whose harvest impacts fish populations more — and the accuracy of state assessments tracking them.

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

The argument over who gets access to the state's fisheries involves four main North Carolina fish species: estuarine striped bass, southern flounder, striped mullet, and spotted seatrout. The most recent data available shows that all these species are impacted by overfishing.

The Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina (CCA-NC) is a recreational fishing and environmental advocacy organization. It’s suing the state over the use of gillnets and shrimp trawling in inshore coastal waters, like estuaries.

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

David Sneed, executive director of the CCA-NC, said these fishing practices are harmful and have been banned in other states, including Texas.

A major bone of contention is the use of gillnets, which are essentially walls of netting that hang in the water. The mesh size depends on the size of fish you want to catch. Ideally, the target fish are caught and the rest swim through.

Gillnets are often used to fish southern flounder, a stock that is overfished. Because of how small the population has become, the MFC had to implement what some called “draconian” measures to protect the fishery: a 72% reduction in harvested fish in 2022.

Gillnets are controversial gear; some environmental advocates say they catch fish indiscriminately and unwanted species are thrown back, where they can die, get caught again, or be eaten by predators. Fish can die in gillnets because they can’t breathe — they’re trapped in place, and can’t keep water moving through their gills.

Sammy Corbett, a commercial fisherman, disputed some of these concerns. He told WHQR that good fishermen know where to cast the nets to target a fish and have very few discards.

Sea turtles and gillnets

Sea turtles are vulnerable to being killed by gillnets, a major reason they’ve been banned in some states.

Craig Harms, a veterinarian for the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, said that used to be a big issue before the gillnet fishery received an incidental take permit (ITP) from NOAA in 2014.

The permit allows a certain number of sea turtle interactions each year. Interaction can mean anything from bumping into the gillnet to death. If that number is surpassed in a season, gillnets are banned for the rest of the season.

The observer program reports turtle interactions. Observers tag along on boats to monitor and count those interactions, on at least 7% of trips in the large-mesh gillnet fishery and 1% of the small-mesh gillnet fishery. They then extrapolate their count to overall trips to determine when to close gillnetting in a season.

But Daniel, the former DMF director, said during his tenure the program never met those requirements.

“One of the most difficult things I had to deal with was the fishermen not agreeing to go or not taking observers with them and not reporting their turtles,” he said. “So we knew that was happening and we couldn't fix it.”

In the suit, the CCA NC claims that the state is still not meeting the minimum requirement of 7% observer coverage — and CCA NC members have called the program an "abject failure." The DMF declined to respond to that claim, citing pending litigation.

The ITP allowing these turtle interactions is up for renewal. The state has to apply for that renewal with NOAA, but the majority of public comments online are against it.

Questions about the ITP and gillnets

Harms said the ITP came about because of environmental advocacy. Jean Beasley, founder of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, settled a lawsuit with the state in 2010 that required North Carolina to have an ITP because there were so many turtle deaths occurring from gillnets.

The CCA NC suit questioned why the DMF applied for an ITP on behalf of the gillnet fishery. That makes it seem as though the state is invested more in economics than helping turtles: why else would it apply for a permit that allows that kind of harm?

But the settlement actually required the state to apply for the ITP. That’s according to Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, which helped broker the deal.

Harms said the permit made a huge difference. Now, he sees significantly fewer turtles who’ve encountered gillnets in his clinic.

“We probably see more turtles coming into rehab from being struck by boats,” he said. “I would be pretty happy if there were a lot fewer [...] recreational boats out there speeding around and running over turtles.”

Former DMF Director Louis Daniel said if the ITP were gone, there would be no limits on interacting with turtles in the commercial sector.

And Harms notes that gillnets can do more damage than a hook and line.

“If a turtle gets hooked, we can take the hook out and it's going to swim off. If a turtle gets caught for 12 hours, forcibly submerged; it's gonna drown, it's gonna die,” he said.

From CCA-NC's point of view, Sneed said all the controversy with gillnets could be avoided by using cleaner gear.

“Why do you keep protecting a gear that does have bycatch issues, that does have interactions with endangered species?” he said.

From a DMF perspective, Daniel said he sees banning gillnets as a management failure, but they should definitely be regulated. He suggests requiring gillnets be monitored, rather than sitting out for hours or days.

While many agree that gillnets pose a threat to turtles when they're near the coast, it's worth asking how often that happens.

UNCW Professor Fred Scharf and recreational fisherman Matt Littleton said that they’ve seen gillnets grow less popular. Estuarine gillnet permits issued each fiscal year decreased from roughly 2,600 to 2,400 in the past seven years.

Littleton said most commercial fishermen get gillnet permits along with commercial licenses because it’s easier to do it all at once; the gillnet permit is a relatively simple 'add-on.'

“My grandpa, my dad, my brother, my mom, all of them have estuarine gillnet permits, and none of them have probably been used in 13 years,” he said.

Shrimp trawling bycatch

Shrimp trawling in estuaries is another point of contention.

The CCA NC’s lawsuit claims that on average, for every pound of shrimp caught, there are 3.6 pounds of living bycatch — that's fish that are caught along with the shrimp in the trawl.

Estuaries are where many juvenile fish live before migrating to the ocean as adults. Because juveniles are smaller, they’re a similar size to shrimp and are more easily caught.

A three-year DMF study observed what species were caught in shrimp trawls. Observing every trip wouldn't be possible, so the study extrapolated from the results of monitoring 1.2% of all trawl trips over the span of the study.

In all fishing seasons of the commercial shrimp otter trawl fishery in 2014, the most caught species in a shrimp trawl was not shrimp, but Atlantic croaker — the study observed 2.5 million of them, making up nearly half of all biomass in the harvest. Weakfish are another impacted species; they make up the largest portion of discarded fish, and their stock is depleted.

But what happens to those fish? Based on his time at the DMF, Daniel said many can be eaten by predators that follow the boats or be caught by multiple trawls.

“We know that there are specific spots in Pamlico Sound that may be trawled over 15-20 times a day,” he said. “So what are the chances that an individual juvenile fish can avoid a trawl that frequently over the course of the season?”

Another issue is that parts of the Pamlico Sound are considered nursery habitats for some species. Advocates are concerned that too much of that area is unprotected.

The CCA-NC and their supporters say trawling bycatch is a massive waste, and it hurts fish populations by killing a lot of juvenile fish. If the fish are killed before reaching maturity, they can never reproduce.

Sea Turtles and trawls

Trawls can harm turtles as well. To address this, the MFC required trawlers to use bycatch reduction devices and turtle excluder devices. It’s debatable whether they are effective, but Stephen Poland, who oversees fishery management, said that’s the best tool available.

Professor Scharf said the CCA-NC brought a petition to his advisory committee to end trawling because of the high amounts of bycatch. But his committee shot down the idea because there's not enough data on bycatch in each specific species.

According to the DMF, the 3-year study they conducted was only intended to provide context of what kinds of species made up bycatch. Staff are currently figuring out whether it would be possible to conduct a long-term shrimp trawl observer program — that might the percentage of fish stocks are being impacted when they're killed as bycatch.

But the science new and counting every fish in the sea is, understandably, a difficult task.

“A barren wasteland”

There's also the environmental impact of trawling. Former DMF director Louis Daniel said that trawls harm the floor of the Pamlico Sound, which is important for a healthy ecosystem.

Otter trawls are the most common type of trawls — they pull a net along the bottom of the sea floor with two trawl doors on either side holding it open.

“There used to be all these lush, live bottom areas with soft corals, tuna kits, oyster reefs that just made Pamlico Sound such a fertile estuary and nursery ground for all of these different species of fish,” Daniel said. “Now it's just a barren wasteland.”

Stephen Poland, who oversees fisheries management, said anytime fishing gear touches the sea floor, there’s potential for negative impact. The question is how to balance the industry’s needs versus the environment’s needs, he said.

CCA-NC Director David Sneed said a troubling aspect of these issues is that North Carolina is the only state to allow gillnetting and inshore trawling in estuaries. He pointed to commercial influence on the state’s regulatory bodies, the MFC and DMF.

But it appears a little more complicated than that. Mel Bell, former director of Fisheries Management under the Department of Natural Resources in South Carolina, said North Carolina just has more opportunity for inshore fishing.

“Your sounds are really neat,” he said. “The fisheries go where the resource is.”

In South Carolina, there was a years-long battle between recreational and commercial fishers. Bell said the recreational group eventually became more powerful, and the same shift is taking place here.

Bell said another difference is that North Carolina does stock status assessments — that’s not a requirement in South Carolina and they don’t have the resources for it. In that regard, he said North Carolina is doing better at managing fish populations.

Reforming the MFC

Still, concerns remain over declining stocks in North Carolina. MFC Chair Rob Bizzell said two major factors that affect the fish are water quality and climate change.

“The ocean is getting warmer, and with the increasing sea level that's pushing more saltwater inland. And it's causing some of our fish to migrate more or find a home more inland,” he said.

Bizzell said these are difficult issues to handle because those are factors the MFC can’t control, and the only tool they have is managing the harvest.

Poland said the DMF does address environmental quality by including coastal habitat protection plans with fishery management plans.

So what’s being done about these declining stocks?

Professor Scharf said there’s not one answer, but ultimately: “the buck stops with the Marine Fisheries Commission.”

He said the MFC can be too politicized to make changes. These arguments play out in the commission constantly, since there’s an even split of commercial and recreational fishermen appointed to those seats.

Scharf said there should be a science advisory committee to act as a more neutral force, as the DMF is often seen as biased — by both sides.

In response to the concern that the MFC is too politicized, chairman Rob Bizzell said the commission gets things done, but it’s not easy.

“We will get our stuff accomplished,” he said. “It's kind of like sausage; you really don't want to see how it's made but in the end, it's usually a good product.”

He also disagreed that the state is biased against either recreational or commercial fishing interests.

“Everybody's got, to a degree, their own agenda. I think the way they set that up in the past is so everybody would have an equal say in the management of resources, and hopefully, come to a consensus,” he said.

However, he did acknowledge that the system is too slow. It usually takes at least two years for a change to be made, which can feel frustrating for fishermen.

And Bizzell said it’s true that some stocks are being overfished in North Carolina and the MFC needs to fix that — which he knows won’t be popular.

“If I tick everybody off I’ve done my job,” he said.

“If it’s broke, fix it”

Scharf said for real change to occur, the two sides will have to learn to work with each other.

“If we can find a way to bridge the gaps, where we can have a bit more cohesiveness and trust, then it’ll be easier to respectfully disagree,” he said.

Daniel went further; he said the MFC should be dissolved. Since the Fisheries Reform Act in the late nineties made the commission what it is today, many stocks have continued to decline.

“We can't look at what we've done and say that there's been any real, measurable success,” he said. “To me, it just kind of lends itself to: if it's broke, fix it.”

It will always be a problem that most of the commission is personally or financially invested in the outcome of policy making, he said.

Recreational and commercial fishing require two different styles of management. One group values bigger fish in smaller quantities and the other values quantity.

Daniel said he wasn’t able to solve the inherent conflict in the MFC and between the two management styles in his time as director — and that’s why he was told he was removed.

Daniel offered another solution: to merge the DMF with the Wildlife Resources Commission, a state agency that manages inshore fisheries and wildlife. That idea has been echoed by Sneed and other environmental advocates.

Daniel said the commission has successfully preserved many wildlife resources, and merging the two would increase efficiency. It would also insulate the DMF from fishing industry influence.

A merger would help the DMF better enforce regulations, as some advocates have complained the agency is understaffed.

When Daniel headed the DMF, he saw that proposal as a personal insult and an insult to the DMF’s abilities. But now, as an outsider, he has changed his mind. Regardless, he said, this current system isn’t working.

“If we don't do what's in the best interest of the resource, there won’t be a resource,” he said.

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.