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N.C. Marine Fisheries to consider contentious shrimping proposal

Petition would limit when and where shrimpers could operate. Opponents fear it would kill the industry

WILMINGTON -- For centuries, shrimping has been central to North Carolina's coastal economy, a practice two conservation groups are asking the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission to curb in order to protect vulnerable juvenile fish that are often collected along with shrimp.

The commission is expected to vote Thursday on the petition, which would limit how, when and where shrimpers could operate. Brought by the N.C. Wildlife Federation and the Southern Environmental Law Center, the petition includes particularly contentious provisions such as limiting the time a trawl can stay in the water to 45 minutes and reducing the days shrimpers can operate to three per week on inner waterways, including the Intracoastal Waterway and the state's extensive sounds.

"The amount of finfish bycatch in the North Carolina shrimp trawl fishery is unsustainably high, and the negative impact of shrimp trawl bycatch is felt coast wide," N.C. Wildlife Federation CEO Tim Gestwicki wrote in his petition to the commission.

N.C. Marine Fisheries to consider contentious shrimping proposal Wednesday Studies, Gestwicki added, have found North Carolina shrimpers discard 4 pounds of juvenile finfish -- think croaker, flounder and spot -- for every pound of shrimp they keep. By limiting the days, he wrote, fish would have a chance to mature before the season opened and recover during trawling season.

Shrimp fishermen and advocacy groups believe they have already made progress toward the reduction of bycatch. Furthermore, they say the new rules would devastate their industry, rendering a trade some families have practiced for generations unprofitable.
Impact on shrimpers 

"It's like you and me saying we'll only work three days a week and taking the commensurate pay cut," said Jerry Schill, president of the N.C. Fisheries Association. "Well, I'm not doing that. If my employer said, 'I'm only going to pay you for three days from here on out,' I'd say, 'I don't think so.' "Reducing bycatch has long been a priority for the industry, said Schill, who is
based in New Bern.

Travis Batson's family has been supported by the fishing industry since it settled around Topsail Island in 1742. In recent weeks, chatter among fishermen at his family's restaurant in Surf City has been focused on the proposal. Existing rules limit shrimpers from trawling on inshore waters between Friday night and Sunday evening, but the proposal
would double that.

"They're wanting to take us from seven days a week to three days a week, aren't they?" Batson said. "My thing is, give us four days unemployment or buy us out if you want to take all our heritage." Batson and other shrimpers were among the roughly 1,000 people who attended a January meeting of five Marine Fisheries Commission advisory boards where so many spoke against the petition the panel had to close the public hearing with 60 people left to speak.

At the end of January's meeting at the New Bern Riverfront Convention Center, the committees recommended denial of the petition. Many shrimpers live in Brunswick County, spending July and August trawling in the Pamlico Sound. Earlier this month, county commissioners passed a resolution formally opposing the petition.

Should the rules be enacted, the shrimp industry will undoubtedly be impacted, said Scott Baker, a N.C. Sea Grant fisheries specialist based at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The economic impact, he noted, is difficult to quantify because the nearly 100-page petition did not include an analysis of it.

"The rules, if enacted, would certainly reduce bycatch in the fishery," Baker wrote in an email, "but, whether or not that bycatch reduction translates into a significant improvement in the production or overall health of common bycatch species like spot, croaker and weakfish is uncertain."

Previous efforts

Similar efforts to this petition have failed in recent years, including a nearly identical petition that was rejected by the Marine Fisheries Commission in 2013. In 2003, Bonner Stiller, a then-state representative for Brunswick County, sponsored a bill proposing a ban on shrimp trawling in the Intracoastal Waterway of Brunswick and New Hanover counties. The bill was borne out of Stiller's watching his friends and neighbors trawl for shrimp and pulling small fish from their nets. "We have our commercial people say, 'We've been doing this all our lives,' "Stiller said, "and I say, 'Yes, but somebody's grandfather used to be a buffalo
hunter, too.' "After meeting stiff opposition from commercial opposition, the bill stalled.

Stiller said he still supports the Wildlife Federation's proposed rules changes. Stiller's efforts did lead to N.C. Sea Grant conducting bycatch studies in 2004 and 2005. That study, which Stiller keeps in his Southport office, found that in April shrimping resulted in 0.9 kilograms of bycatch for every 0.1 kilogram of shrimp, an amount that fell to a 4-to-1 ratio in May, 3-to-1 in June and evened out in July.

In the decade since that research was conducted, reducing bycatch has remained a focus of the shrimp industry and its regulators. Three years ago, the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission created a work group to test bycatch reduction devices, targeting 40 percent reduction in addition to a federally mandated 30 percent decrease.

During a workgroup session last month, N.C. Sea Grant researchers presented preliminary results from last summer that indicated two devices they tested in the Pamlico Sound had resulted in 45 percent reductions in finfish bycatch and with little to no loss in the shrimp haul.

Heidi Smith, the president of N.C. Catch, which advocates for local seafood, said the group became involved after conducting a pair of analyses estimating the proposal could reduce the annual shrimp harvest by up to 90 percent. Ideally, Smith said, the commission would gather more information about the economic impact and whether the bycatch reduction studies are already
achieving some of the Wildlife Federation's goals before passing new rules. 

"The banks don't typically wait on your mortgage payment while you're trying something," Smith said, adding, "We think there is a way to do some things that test (N.C. Wildlife Federation's) theory, and in particular, there's something being done right now with the bycatch study."

If the petition is approved Thursday, it would enter the N.C. Marine Fisheries rulemaking process, which would likely take about a year to complete. 

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or
[email protected].

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