A battle is brewing between the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission and the association that represents the state’s commercial fishermen. At issue are proposed changes to licensing rules, which the association says could deprive people who have fished for generations of permits.
The commission, which is part of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, voted 5-4 in February to recommend that the General Assembly pass a law requiring commercial fishermen to record at least 1,000 pounds of seafood caught or 15 trips in any two of five years. Currently, there are no quotas, and anyone who holds a commercial-fishing license and pays the annual fee — $400 for state residents — can renew it.
The nonprofit N.C. Fisheries Association fired back with a lawsuit, alleging some board members violated the state’s open meetings law by developing the proposed changes outside the public eye.
“The commission has been stacked against us,” says Glenn Skinner, a commercial fisherman from the Morehead City/Newport area who is executive director of the fisheries association. The governor appoints the commission, which includes representatives of the commercial- and recreational-fishing industries, as well as at-large members and a scientist. Over time, Skinner says, the balance of power has shifted against commercial-fishing interests. A goal of the lawsuit is to force more open dialogue between the commission and commercial fishermen. “This is a way to get some openness and clarity,” he says.
For many years, the commission has considered tightening restrictions to ensure that the licenses are used by commercial fishermen, rather than recreational anglers who use the documents to catch more fish than would otherwise be allowed, depleting seafood stocks.
Commercial fishermen overwhelmingly opposed the proposed changes. Commission Chairman Sammy Corbett, a Hampstead commercial fisherman, voted against the proposal. “Once again, we’re trying to fix what seems to be more of a recreational problem, but we’re going to punish people with commercial licenses,” he told the Kinston Free Press.
The Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, a group of conservationists and recreational fishermen, favors the proposed changes. “The biggest concern is [that] our fisheries-management plan is failing to manage our public trust resource properly,” says David Sneed, the group’s executive director. “It belongs to all of the people of North Carolina. It needs to be protected for all citizens. To us, that’s what’s important.”
Sneed says the fisheries association’s lawsuit attempts to discredit the commission because commercial fishermen are upset that they no longer hold sway over the board.