The N.C. Wildlife Federation has embarked on a program called “Sound Solutions” in an attempt to convince major players in state government that new steps are needed to reverse pressure on fish that live in the state’s sounds and backwaters.

The NCWF presented Sound Solutions May 12 in Morehead City to convince state government and citizens that changes are critical.

“This is a comprehensive campaign to maintain the inshore waters of North Carolina,” said David Knight, a former assistant secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “Our recommendations will include such goals as oyster restoration, fisheries management changes, protecting coastal habitat and refining fisheries methods and gear types. We see this as a moderate approach to help all citizens of the state to be able to use and benefit from our sounds and estuaries.” 

The 1997 Fisheries Reform Act was an attempt to end overfishing and protect fish, but it has mainly produced snap-shot stock-status reports that only documented the swift falls of many species. The results of these studies have been largely ignored by legislatures, governors and the state’s N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission.

Knight said because the FRA has produced little progress, the NCWF embarked on this course. The state’s largest private conservation organization believes the time has come for an ecosystem-based management approach that takes into account entire aquatic ecosystems rather than singling out individual fisheries for management.

Knight understands Sound Solutions will meet opposition in some quarters, but not as much as some user groups declare.

“I traveled to many coastal communities and talked one-on-one to people — seafood dealers, restaurant owners, recreational and commercial fishermen — and their No. 1 issue was they couldn’t fish where they used to fish,” he said. “Their main concern was habitat loss and degradation. So that’s why we have an emphasis on habitat protection, incentivizing living shorelines, low-impact development and keeping run-off and pollution out of our sounds. A lot of people told me our inlets are filling up.”

Knight said it is time for the bickering to stop and for people who love and enjoy the coast to come together in a common goal.

“For decades, reform has been thwarted because parties on opposite sides of the debate cannot agree,” he said. “Potential policies are so opposed by one side or the other, legislators won’t touch them.”

The NCWF program would give more protection to oyster beds, addressing the fact that North Carolina’s population of wild oysters is at 10 percent of its historic level. It also recommends “living shorelines” that would replace bulkheads and provide more natural habitat for saltwater species. The NCWF also wants more low-impact development to minimize run-off pollution into the sounds and estuaries.

One of its main goals will be to reduce destructive shrimp-trawling gear that has devastated croakers, spots and gray trout numbers in North Carolina’s sounds through “bycatch,” which has killed millions of juvenile fish. The NCWF also wants another study of nursery areas to protect small fish.

Knight already has met with the governor and legislative leaders. He is scheduled to meet with Dr. Louis Daniel, executive director of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries director, and he hopes to meet with Dr. Donald van der Vaart, secretary of the N.C. Division of Environment and Natural Resources.