North Carolina is a unique state. We are blessed to live in a place with a wealth of natural resources, from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks. As CEO of an organization that works to ensure that these natural resources are protected and sustained for our future generations, I am acutely aware of the challenges North Carolina faces in conservation and sustainability efforts. These challenges are increasingly difficult in times of limited financial resources.
Even with the added burden of no or little financial resources, the state is making progress on some fronts. Unfortunately, there is one sector where North Carolina is falling critically short due to underfunding. It happens to be one of the most vital sectors, not only to our state and this region, but also to the whole country. The sector I am talking about is marine fisheries.
The viability and sustainability of North Carolina’s marine fisheries are too important economically and environmentally for its residents to allow underfunding and inaction to go on any longer. This inaction is the culmination of stakeholders’ inability to get beyond decades-old arguments and historical distrust.
This inaction goes beyond the health of our fishing stocks. It goes to the very core of eastern North Carolina’s economy. As recently as 2014, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries reported that the recreational fishing industry alone had a $1.7 billion total impact on the North Carolina economy. Together, the commercial and recreational fisheries contribute around $2 billion annually to our state’s economy.
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This significant impact on our economy and culture is why it is so important that North Carolina take advantage of every opportunity to leverage outside financial sources to help us protect the state’s marine resources. One such opportunity stands before us now. It is the opportunity for the state to sign a Joint Enforcement Agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency that oversees marine fisheries.
This agreement would bring approximately $600,000 into the state each year to support North Carolina’s DMF with implementation of its law enforcement responsibilities. Every state on the east and Gulf coasts has such an agreement, and has for many years. Regardless of Democratic or Republican legislatures or governors, all these years and decades, North Carolina has been the only coastal state to miss out on this joint agreement for marine patrol.
Because of this inaction, North Carolina has lost precious funding and the capacity to adequately enforce the state’s marine resources laws. Again, North Carolina is the only state not taking advantage of this federal funding to help it enforce the fishing laws to protect its public trust resources.
Last year, the N.C. General Assembly passed a law
allowing the state to enter into a JEA. At the same time, the General Assembly reduced the DMF’s budget by $600,000, the amount of federal funding the agreement would bring to North Carolina. The problem is the JEA remains unsigned today, so the division not only hasn’t received the expected federal support, it has lost another $600,000 from the state budget.
Let’s not lose any more federal funding; residents and elected officials alike should support Gov. Pat McCrory in immediately signing the Joint Enforcement Agreement, bringing benefits to our state’s residents, fisheries and economy. The opportunity is here. The time is now.
Tim Gestwicki is CEO of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation.