All coastal states in our nation, except North Carolina, have a Joint Enforcement Agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service because a JEA makes sense: It saves money and aids law enforcement.
A special legislatively mandated group called the JEA Advisory Committee has been studying whether North Carolina should enter into a JEA with the National Marine Fisheries Service. A JEA would allow enforcement of federal fisheries rules by N.C. Marine Patrol officers and bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to the patrol.
On June 1, the committee, charged with advising the legislature on the JEA, met in New Bern. It has become clear that the committee is indisputably a sham.
The fisheries management rules that JEA would enforce were not handed down by bureaucrats in Washington but actually were made by North Carolina and its neighboring states through the council process. For example, the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council consists of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Working as a team, these states agreed on fisheries regulations for the fish that reside between 3 and 200 miles offshore and that migrate between states or are stocks that encompass more than one state.
To emphasize the importance of proper management and enforcement of these fisheries regulations, the top three recreational finfish and the top two commercial finfish landed in 2014 in N.C. ports are federal, council-managed stocks. All of the other states are keeping their bargain to enforce them through their JEAs, but North Carolina is proposing to worm out of its joint enforcement responsibility yet again.
By design, the JEA committee composition was predetermined by the legislature and thus the outcome was predetermined. The committee voted not to recommend entering into a JEA. Only commercial fishermen or charter fishermen were allowed to sit on this committee; all recreational fishermen were excluded. Of the one million or so total saltwater N.C. fishermen, about 99 percent are recreational fishermen. Nonfishing North Carolinians, (about 9 million) were also not represented.
So only 1 percent of the stakeholders, those who have a financial interest, will provide input as to whether federal regulations are enforced properly and whether our nation’s marine resources in territorial waters off the N.C. coast are protected. The majority of us, who truly own the resource, are denied a voice in improving law enforcement. Commercial fishermen are doing their best to block joint enforcement. It makes one question the motivation of people who don’t want fisheries regulations enforced – who doesn’t want law enforcement?
There have been a number of federal prosecutions recently that have exposed massive poaching, such as the “Codfather” case in New England. Ever wonder why that almost never happens here? Is it because our fish-house owners and commercial fishermen are more honest or because we lack JEA?
At best, North Carolina has a sordid history of fisheries management, with only four of 16 managed finfish stocks listed as viable. In large part, that is because North Carolina has the most relaxed commercial fishing regulations in the country. The decline of the commercial fishing industry in N.C. is not due to regulations, but to the lack of regulations that have depleted state-managed stocks. Most states are managing their stocks well, partly because they are able to enforce both local and federal fish laws, which are designed to protect and build fish stocks.
Stocks can be rebuilt for the benefit of all user groups, but it requires both stringent regulation and enforcement. We lack the former at the state level and the latter at the federal level.
Legislators need to more carefully scrutinize natural resource bills. The bill creating this sham committee is just one example of several introduced on behalf of the commercial fishing industry that place short-term economic gains in front of the long-term health of the public trust marine resources. All user groups should have input into natural resource legislation.
Chris Elkins, Ph.D., of Gloucester is president of the Coastal Conservation Association of NC.