New rules for shrimp trawls topic of meeting

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Expert on each side of controversy offers insights

A large crowd turned out for the public meeting.

By Raynor James

Coastal Carolina Taxpayers Association



Jerry Schill (left) and Donald Willis were the evening’s speakers.

NEW BERN – Tuesday night, Feb. 21, numerous fishermen and their families; two Craven County Commissioners (Jason Jones and Johnnie Sampson, with his wife); District Court Judge Josh Willey, and assorted CCTA regulars showed up at the group’s regular monthly meeting.

The draw?  They all came to hear Donald Willis, Vice President of the Coastal Conservation Association (representing sports fishermen and environmentalists); and, Jerry Schill, President of the North Carolina Fisheries Association (representing commercial fishermen).

Their topic, of course, was the ongoing controversy over a petition for rulemaking filed by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, which was approved last week in a split vote by the Marine Fisheries Commission.

The MFC is an appointed board that sets fishing policy in North Carolina – with that policy implemented through rules and regulations administered by a state agency known as the Division of Marine Fisheries.

It would be natural to assume that, because the Marine Fisheries Commission has now approved rules drastically curtailing shrimp trawls in the state’s coastal waters, the debate is over. However, that appears to be far from true!

Donald Willis, who is also the owner/operator of Custom Marine Fabrications on Highway 70 in James City, spoke first.

Willis said that in the early days, 90 percent of Custom Marine Fabrications’ work came from supporting sportsmen who were fishing for spots, croakers, and grey trout. He added that three local businesses supplied 80 percent of the baits for those three species of fish.

“Those fish aren’t here anymore,” he asserted.

As a result, Willis and the bait suppliers have each had to change their business model in order to continue to earn a living, albeit in his case with a significant reduction in income.

Willis pointed out that the petition — which would greatly change the rules for shrimpers by further limiting where, when, with what equipment, and for how long commercial shrimpers can work — was not brought by the Coastal Conservation Association, and added, “We were surprised by it.”

Willis said he “doubted” whether the petition will stand as written. He discussed the process for implementation and pointed out ways changes can be made during the process. Then, he pointed out that if one considers the entire southeast (including coastal states from Texas to North Carolina) the North Carolina shrimp output is only 3 percent of the total.

He further commented that, if passed, North Carolina would still have the most liberal rules for shrimping. Willis received polite applause when he concluded his remarks.

Jerry Schill gave a brief history of his organization, which represents commercial fishermen, seafood dealers, and processors. He characterized fishermen as the most independent, stubborn, cantankerous, and almost the hardest working people he knows.

(Schill grew up on a farm, and maintained with a grin that only milking cows twice a day, every day is harder.)

He said he was once asked by an academic economist if it wouldn’t be a good thing if “we could come up with a guaranteed wage” for fishermen. His reply was: “You’d ruin them.” They routinely fill up with expensive fuel, and go out, not knowing what they’ll catch, or what price fish will bring that day!

Willie Etheridge from Wanchese used to go out in storms nobody else would venture out in, but when he returned, he got top dollar for his catch. Thus, Mr. Shill made the point that fishermen thrive in a world in which risk is balanced by reward.

“In the 1980s when I started with the Fisheries Association, by-catch was a new idea.  We designed our own devices. Did it voluntarily. We designed TEDs, turtle excluder devices, and turtles have rebounded.”

Schill went on to explain that by-catch reduction was at first done voluntarily, and only later required by the state.

“Over the years, one of the things we’ve worked hardest on is shrimp trawl by-catch reduction.  We lead the nation in that.”

Three years ago, there was a petition to ban fishing in inside waters, and fishermen went through a similar process to the recent one with a public meeting in New Bern at which fishermen arrived in many cases by water. The public was heard and there was scientific input, the advisory committees recommended against the petition, and, ultimately, the Marine Fisheries Commission voted to deny it.

“This time, the area goes three miles out. It’s not a ban, but the restrictions are severe.  We’re limited to three days and no night-time shrimping.  Down south, they shrimp in the shipping lanes approaching the port of Wilmington. Little shrimp boats don’t want to be there challenging ships in the daytime. You know who’d win!”

Schill went on to say that the number of fishing boats has declined over the years; the number of packing facilities has declined; the average age of fishermen has increased; and the number of processors has gone from about 47 down to 6.

He raised a question he’s probably been asked, “Why are you against regulations?”  Then he answered himself, “Because we’re red blooded Americans!”  And he added, “People who want regulations want to hold back their competition.”

Because of the declining numbers Schill quoted, one might conclude that competitors for the resources — which support commercial fishermen — have been successful in encouraging regulation.

Schill moved from the history of creeping (galloping?) regulation, to the current petition. He mentioned the huge (about 1,000 attendees) meeting at the New Bern Riverfront Convention at which the five advisory committees voted overwhelmingly to recommend against the petition, including the votes of all of the scientists (except one who sits on the Marine Fisheries Commission as well as on an advisory committee).

He said the Commission that approved the petition while meeting in Wilmington did so with two sports fishermen sitting in the at-large seats. It was intended that the Commission be composed of an equal number of sports and commercial fishermen, a scientist, and two at-large seats to be filled by consumers, restaurant owners, or somebody else who has a stake.

However, before he left office, former Gov. Pat McCrory appointed two sports fishermen to these seats deliberately giving the balance of power on the commission to the sports fishermen.  Why?

No matter the answer, the story isn’t over!

An 18 to 24 month process is beginning.  Ninety percent of the people in North Carolina do not fish, but most of us like shrimp, fish, and other delicious North Carolina (not imported) seafood. Those of us in that category need to let our members of the North Carolina Senate and House know we want shrimping in North Carolina to thrive, and for that to happen, the severe proposed restrictions on shrimping must not be implemented.

If we don’t speak out, it won’t be appropriate to complain when we can no longer buy North Carolina seafood in restaurants and seafood markets.


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