The N.C. Wildlife Federation announced on Nov. 2 its plans to file a petition for rule making that would designate all coastal waters along North Carolina’s coast as nursery areas to reduce by-catch mortality due to trawling.

The Federation’s petition seeks amendments to several parts of North Carolina’s administrative code “in order to promote and ensure the viability and sustainability of North Carolina’s valuable fisheries resources for all citizens.” 

In doing so, it seeks to designate “all coastal fishing waters not otherwise designated as nursery areas as special, secondary nursery areas, to establish clear criteria for the opening of shrimp season, and define the type of gear and how and when gear may be used in special secondary nursery areas during shrimp season.”

The petition does not seek to eliminate inshore shrimp trawling but to reduce the effort, reduce the areas where shrimping is allowed, reduce the size of nets and reduce the amount of juvenile finfish killed as by-catch.

The petition is scheduled to be presented at the beginning of a public comment period on Nov. 17 during the Commission’s Nov. 16-18 meting in Kitty Hawk. The petition will not be discussed until the Commission’s scheduled meeting in February in Wilmington.

Tim Gestwicki, chief executive officer of the NCWF, said it was high time for North Carolina to manage its inshore fisheries the way neighboring states are.

“The impact of industrialized shrimp trawl by-catch is felt coastwide, putting commercially and recreationally valuable fish stocks in trouble,” he said. “The amount of juvenile fish caught and wasted in the shrimp trawl fishery is unsustainably high in North Carolina’s sounds and important habitat areas. We’re the only state on the east coast to allow shrimp trawling in its sounds, fish nurseries and estuaries.

“We’re working to restore fairness and balance to a fisheries management system that has benefitted one select group to the detriment and exclusion of the rest of the citizens of North Carolina,” Gestwicki said. “This petition aims to bring North Carolina in line with all other east coast and Gulf states in limiting trawling in sensitive and critical nursery and habitat areas. It is time we get serious about the future of our fish stocks for the future of North Carolina’s families and economy.” 

David Sneed of the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, a conservation group that represents recreational fishermen, was pleased by the Federation’s move.

“We are very encouraged by the N.C. Wildlife Federation’s recent Petition for Rulemaking. The elimination of the wasteful by-catch from the shrimp trawlers in the nursery area that is the Pamlico Sound has long been a reform priority for the Coastal Conservation Association,” Sneed said. “The reduction of by-catch in the Pamlico Sound is the No. 1 opportunity we have in North Carolina to allow our inshore fisheries to recover and reach its full potential. We plan to be very supportive of the NCWF Petition.”

As expected, representatives of commercial fishing interests disagreed.

Sammy Corbett, who represents commercial fishermen as chairman of the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission, said, "I'm having a tough time trying to understand the need for this petition. It's very similar to a petition presented by an individual before the latest amendment to the Shrimp Fishery Management Plan. That petition wasn't accepted and then we began reviewing the FMP. If these items were so necessary, why weren't they brought to the committees and Commission then? The new Shrimp Fishery Management Plan hasn't even gone into effect yet. The first part of it becomes effective on Jan. 1, 2017.”

Jerry Schill of the N.C. Fisheries Association, stated his objections in a press release, questioning the timing — the Federation released notice of its plans on the same day that Gov. Pat McCrory appointed a recreational fisherman to a vacant seat on the Commission, giving recreationals a 6-3 super majority on the policy making board.

"Coincidentally, a Petition for Rulemaking was filed on Nov. 2 before the Marine Fisheries Commission by the Southern Environmental Law Center, acting on behalf of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, that would severely restrict shrimping in North Carolina,” Schill said. “Or was it a coincidence? Will fishermen get a fair hearing on the issue now before a stacked Commission?

"Commercial fishermen have always played the hand dealt by the good Lord," Schill said. “Hurricanes, nor'easters (and) rogue waves are all part of the experience that gives them a toughness that few Americans have today. They have survived dealing with these adverse conditions, but the political storms are almost too much to bear. Hurricane Matthew is a cakewalk compared to the storm created by Governor McCrory.”