Feds threaten livelihood of state’s commercial fishermen
Insiders predict hundreds of jobs on the line
CHOWAN COUNTY — The North Carolina Fisheries Association held a meeting here last Friday evening to acquaint area leaders and politicians about the plight the seafood industry faces from inordinate government regulation.
The session was well attended and everyone had the opportunity to hear directly from the watermen who are being affected.
Among the attendees were state House Rep. Bob Steinburg; Betty Jo Shepherd from Senator Richard Burr’s office; Adam Caldwell from Senator Tillis’s office; Chairman of the Chowan Board of Commissioners, Jeff Smith; Vice Chair Alex Kehayes; and County Commissioner John Michener. Representing the Bertie County Commissioners was Vice Chair, Ernestine Bazemore; and from Pasquotank County, Commissioner Frankie Meads; and from Edenton, town manager Anne Marie Knighton.
The North Carolina Fisheries Association pushed for the meeting in order to explain the problems they are having with the federal government and to seek support from political leaders before another round of proposed regulations take effect in approximately 18 months.
The focus of the regulations has to do with the Blue Catfish, which is a very predatory and aggressive species that is capable of growing to a size of a 150 pounds and a length of 65 inches with a life span of 20-25 years.
The problem that the fishing industry has with the federal government is that the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss) has concluded that locally caught catfish should be processed in the same manner as farm raised catfish, under federal regulation.
This may mean that fishermen would be forced to construct processing facilities, an expense most small fishing operations cannot afford. Area processors such as Nixon’s Seafood in Chowan County (that typically process several different species of fish) must deploy these processing facilities in order to comply with the regulations, or else leave the business of processing Blue Catfish altogether.
This will mean large-scale loss of income to a large segment of the commercial fishing industry and loss of jobs on a massive scale.
In order to understand the implications of this matter, consider this: Each female Blue Catfish produces 4000 to 8000 eggs per kilogram of its body weight. This means that a 10-pound fish can produce more than 20,000 eggs each year. These fish can grow to 25 to 30 pounds in a span of approximately two years. Blue Catfish are very invasive and eat everything that they can, from crabs to other small fish, and they can survive in fresh and brackish water.
Therefore, if local fishermen are unable to catch these fish and reduce their numbers, they will the species could overwhelm the waters in which they breed and grow, creating a loss of volume from other species that occupy those same waters.
Therefore, this is a lose/lose proposition, all the way around. One U.S. Senator seems to be playing politics with this matter.
The regulations require that processed fish come under the FDA and their FSIS Division, which stands for Food Safety Inspection Service. Traditionally, this agency has been charged with the responsibility for food safety involving meat, poultry and eggs but now would be expanded to include fish. The original intent of these regulations was for domestic farm-raised catfish to be protected from imported farm-raised catfish. In the process of protecting domestic fish, the regulators have gone too far.
The original idea was to target imported fish supplies from SE Asia and to make them comply with the same health and quality standards as those that are grown in the United States.
On the local level, the Murray L. Nixon Fishery alone has bought 2.5 million pounds of catfish from local suppliers resulting at a cost of $1 million to local watermen. In 2015, there were approximately 591 watermen who landed catfish in North Carolina. In that same year, there were approximately 97 dealers with employees who handled catfish.
The North Carolina Fisheries Association has tried to explain its position and to reason with Sen. Cochran about the implications of the proposed regulations – so far with little success.
The goal of the meeting is to marshal the support of legislators and elected officials from around the region in an effort to influence the Senator’s views on this very complex subject. The livelihoods of a great many people hang in the balance. The County Compass will continue to report on this very important local issue.