The North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission will be voting on a petition submitted by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation on Feb. 16 in Wilmington that will significantly impact our state’s shrimping industry, negatively affect our seafood restaurants and consumers and eliminate jobs.
The petition claims that shrimping has resulted in declines of populations of at least three types of fish, spot, Atlantic croaker and weakfish, that current fishing practices are unsustainable and proposes many unnecessary rules on shrimp trawling, the main manner that shrimp are caught in the United States. Simply and clearly, the petition lacks scientific evidence that attributes shrimp bycatch to declines in spot, croaker and weakfish.
While shrimpers do catch small fish, called bycatch, there is no proof scientifically that shrimp trawl bycatch has an impact on populations of spot, croaker and weakfish. In fact, independent fisheries experts have found that croaker are not in a state of decline, and that fishing is not negatively affecting weakfish populations. Instead natural factors, not fishing mortality, are responsible for coastwide declines in weakfish.
No changes in management on spot have been recommended by national experts. Fisheries biologists from the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries also did not see the need for such drastic measures as proposed by the petition in two earlier comprehensive examinations of the North Carolina shrimp fishery (2006 and 2015 Shrimp Fishery Management Plans) and found no correlation in abundance indices of juvenile croaker, weakfish and spot in North Carolina with North Carolina shrimp trawl effort for the last 21 years.
The petition requests that all the state’s waters (both estuarine and near shore ocean waters) be designated nursery areas. Trawling would be prohibited to protect habitat and young fish unless opened by DMF during specified times and under certain conditions, pointing to regulations on trawling in other states to justify the request.
North Carolina’s estuarine waters are unique (the second largest estuary in the USA) and comparisons to other states are not appropriate. Some states do allow trawling in their estuarine waters and some do not. Approximately 45 percent of the internal waters of North Carolina are already closed due to trawling, with numerous designated nursery areas based on intense data gathering and analyses over several years. Similar analyses and data compilation were not performed for this petition. In fact, no data are presented concerning the near shore oceanic waters. Researchers have also found that trawls, such as lightly-weighted shrimp trawls, are not always destructive to bottoms like those found in North Carolina estuaries and near shore waters, and unlike as portrayed in the petition.
The petition does not discuss that the number of trips taken by N.C. shrimp fishermen has been declining by 62 percent since the 1990s, and that North Carolina is leading the nation in excluding juvenile finfish bycatch in shrimp trawls (first state to require finfish excluders and the only state to require two finfish excluders), which exclude substantial proportions of small fish; N.C. shrimpers are collaborating with government experts to exclude even more bycatch.
The North Carolina General Assembly, with the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997, mandated that the state develop fisheries management plans for important species, such as shrimp, spot, croaker and weakfish. Plans have been prepared for all these species, either as one unique for North Carolina (shrimp) or to compliment federal interstate plans (spot, croaker, weakfish).
The plans are developed through a deliberative, public input process and which documents all that is known about a species scientifically and economically. FMPs are required by law to develop conservation actions to keep North Carolina seafood sustainable. None of these fishery management plans recommended such drastic actions as those found in the petition. The Fisheries Reform Act also required that the commission solicit input from their advisers. Their advisory committees voted overwhelmingly (37-4) to deny the petition.
Hopefully, the commissioners will consider their advisers in their deliberations. When one objectively looks at this critical situation in its entirety, and this situation is a turning point for North Carolina’s shrimp fishermen, our small seafood businesses and seafood consumers, it is clear that the petition’s requests do not have merit, and decision-makers should deny the North Carolina Wildlife Federation petition.
Jess H. Hawkins lll and Dr. Allyn Powell are retired fisheries biologists who both served on the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission.