by Winston Brady
In January of 2017, the NC Wildlife Federation issued a petition that would make it almost impossible for commercial fishermen to operate in North Carolina. The petition would designate most NC waterways, even the Atlantic Ocean three miles offshore, as special secondary nursery areas that would largely be off-limits to shrimp trawling. The petition from NC Wildlife was stifled in the General Assembly later that March, but more bills were proposed that would manage NC estuaries as a “public trust resource…to ensure their long-term conservation” and thus limit commercial fishing in favor of recreational fishing. That bill seems to have died in the House Committee on Wildlife Resources, but commercial fishermen still fear that if they are not vigilant, their livelihoods will be regulated out of existence.
This would harm both fishermen and consumers. North Carolina has had a long and proud tradition of commercial fishing dating back to colonial America. If these fishermen are forced out of business, consumers would lose more than fresh seafood. North Carolina would lose the millions of dollars generated each year from commercial fishing and face an increased regulatory environment that taxpayers would inevitably have to support.
Typically, when special interest groups try to influence regulatory laws—in this case, the laws regulating how many fish fishermen can catch and where they can catch them—the regulations create a series of unintended consequences. New environmental regulations would affect suppliers, distributors, and ultimately the consumers of NC seafood. NC seafood would either increase in price as supply dwindles or be replaced by imported seafood from aquaculture farms abroad, most of which lack the safety standards we expect in the U.S. The FDA tries to inspect suppliers and distributors in other countries, but this is a difficult task. Periodically, fecal coliform bacteria and banned pesticides show up in imported seafood. Do you really want to substitute Got to be NC fresh seafood for that?
Environmental regulations inevitably put smaller commercial fishermen out of business. That happened in Florida in 1994 when the state, in a contentious referendum, banned the use of gill nets. The ban was designed to protect finfish species off the Florida coast, and while some fish stocks increased, the ban put many of the smaller, family-operated commercial fishermen out of business. That would be devastating if it happened in North Carolina since most commercial fishermen are already living in poor counties whose residents depend on commercial fishing to make a living. If those jobs disappeared, whole communities could go with them. Currently, if NC fishermen want to use gill nets in NC waters, they may have to carry state observers onboard to monitor their catches at “the State’s request,” so that the NC Marine Fisheries can monitor them and collect data. As with any new regulations, taxpayers inevitably bear these burdens as they pay increased prices for goods or see more money out of their paycheck to support the agencies enforcing the regulations.
But the worst unintended consequence would be the loss of a profession — commercial fishing — unique to North Carolina’s identity. Commercial fishing was as of 2014 the seventh-most regulated profession in the nation, a burden most small business owners do not face even in today’s hyper-regulated regulatory climate, and if today’s commercial fishermen are in fact regulated into oblivion, they would be the last of a long line of commercial fishermen in our state.
North Carolina has long boasted productive fishing grounds like the sounds at Core, Albemarle, and Pamlico, and commercial fishing has been a component of the NC economy for well over 200 years. The fishermen you see operating out near Oriental or Atlantic come from generations of crabbers and shrimpers. Unfortunately, the combined pressure of environmental regulations and the hard salty, slimy life onboard a fishing boat precludes most people from ever wanting to become a fisherman. That is, unless your father or grandfather passed their nets down to you. Who else would want to spend days at a time onboard a trawler unless shrimping was just in your blood? Why not get with the times and learn to code? Or go to law school?
The dispute between these special interest groups illustrates the rapidly changing demographics and socioeconomic makeup of our state. Like tobacco farming and coal mining, commercial fishing represents a traditionally gritty North Carolinian way-of-life that seems at odds with the burgeoning tech and biotech workforce of RTP and the new mainstays of North Carolina’s economy. As North Carolina adds thousands of new jobs each month, professions that once were so integral to North Carolina’s identity now seem outdated and irrelevant. We heartily welcome other industries to North Carolina, but not at the expense of other viable professions that contribute to our economy in meaningful ways. How else are you going to get fresh seafood?
We do not want overregulation to cause NC fisheries or fisherman to disappear. If they do, we would lose a unique part of NC’s heritage and get nothing but imported seafood in return.
Winston Brady is a Civitas contributor and teacher who works at a local private school.
End Note: The petition issued by the NC Wildlife Federation reads, “North Carolina rules do not distinguish between permanent SNAs and SSNAs. The rules prohibit the use of trawl nets, swipe nets, dredges, and other gear in PNAs.16 The rules also prohibit the use of trawl nets in SNAs and SSNAs.17 SSNAs, however, may be opened to trawling at the discretion of the Fisheries Director.18 The designation of nursery areas, which triggers additional restrictions on effort and gear in these areas, is a critical component of the MFC’s duty to protect and conserve the fisheries resources of the state,” from Gestwicki, T. (2016, November 2). Petition for Rulemaking to Amend 15A Admin. Code 3L .0101, 3L .0103, 3M .0522, 3M .0523, 3N .0151, and 3R .0105 to Designate Special Secondary Nursery Areas and Reduce Bycatch Mortality in North Carolina Coastal Fishing Waters. Retrieved July 1, 2018, from http://ncwf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016-11-02-NCWF-Petition-for-Rulemaking-w_Exhibits-A-F.pdf