Commercial fishermen say they can’t stay afloat under biased regulation
PAMLICO COUNTY, NC (WNCT) – The commercial fishing industry is a lifeline for many coastal communities in North Carolina.
According to a study by NC State University, the fishing industry contributes nearly $ 300 million to the state’s economy and employs more than 5,000 people.
However, many commercial fishermen feel like they have been playing the defense for a decade, fighting for their livelihood.
“It’s a tough day to fight when you get up and know that you are fighting for your survival every day, and that you are regulated to the point where you can barely get there,” said Doug Cross.
Cross runs the Pamlico Packing Company with his brother. He grew up around the Vandemere docks and started helping the family business at the age of 13.
“I’ve seen years where boats were a handicap, and I’ve seen years where boats were a blessing,” Cross said.
Storms and bad seasons accompany the territory, but there is another problem entangling these nets.
“Regulation is the biggest wildcard,” Cross said. “How do you plan for the future without knowing what you are going to face.”
From size limits to seasons, commercial fishermen operate under a long list of rules.
Cross says the regulation of most concern is the quota system.
Harvest quotas for certain species of fish are determined by the number of fish available.
“They want all the fish for themselves. It’s that simple, ”Cross said.
Cross believes that the amount recreational fishermen are allowed to take of certain species appears to continue to increase, while the commercial fishermen’s quota is allowed to decrease.
He also says it’s much easier for recreational anglers to fish beyond what they’re supposed to, which leads to overfishing.
“I saw a regulation coming in that completely wiped out fishing, where the people who were thriving, doing good business, in two or three years were completely out of business,” Cross said.
The number of commercial fishing licenses in North Carolina has been steadily declining since 2001.
Last year it was around 2,000 licenses.
The number of recreational anglers in North Carolina is estimated at around one million.
Residents of small fishing towns see the effects of regulation firsthand.
“It was quite the fishing village as you can see, even Pamlico County High School had a fishing program to help the younger ones stay in school,” said Judy Thaanum.
Thaanum is the mayor of Vandemere.
She remembers when 30 or 40 boats left the city docks every day.
“Now people have more jobs elsewhere, so there aren’t as many in the fishing industry,” Thaanum said.
The town still welcomes all fishermen, amateurs and commercial.
Thaanum says the city is ready to grow and evolve no matter what.
Her father founded the Pamlico Packing Company and sold it to the Cross family in the 1970s.
She has seen the industry change, while things have stayed the same.
“My dad used to say that fishing isn’t just done in the water, but in Washington DC it is done in our legislature,” Thaanum said.
In 1997, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Fisheries Reform Act, establishing the Marine Fisheries Division and a means to regulate our waters.
“We analyze the data, collect the data and formulate recommendations which will be forwarded to our Marine Fisheries Commission,” said Kathy Rawls, Director of Marine Fisheries.
The Marine Fisheries Division sets the rules by which all fishermen operate to maintain a healthy and complete fishery.
The tricky part is balancing two overlapping groups, the people who fish for commercial and recreational purposes.
“It’s a tough line to follow, but the way we do it is we bring the data,” Rawls said.
The scientists and researchers of the division bring the data they collect to the Commission for Maritime Fisheries.
The Maritime Fisheries Commission has the final say on the guidelines to be applied.
The commission is made up of people representing all parts of the fishing industry, appointed by the governor.
Cross is one of the people appointed to represent commercial fishermen.
Some conservation groups believe the division is not doing enough.
“Management is the backdrop to it all, if you don’t have proper management you’re not going anywhere,” said Joe Albea.
Albea is the spokesperson for the North Carolina Coastal Fisheries Reform Group.
He also grew up on the waters of North Carolina.
He says major fish populations are declining right before his eyes.
Of the 14 species monitored by the division, three are overexploited and one is considered exhausted.
“We’re saying stop the bleeding, make the changes we know we can to make it a better fishery for everyone,” Albea said.
Along with better regulation of the fishery as a whole, the NCCFRG is also working to move large shrimp vessels to deeper waters and to regulate gillnets.
The group is concerned that these two practices capture and end up killing unintentional marine life, thereby reducing the fish population.
“Our system tells us we can’t take it anymore, and it’s affecting the livelihoods of commercial fishermen and the enjoyment of recreational fishermen,” Albea said. “If you don’t have fish there, you can’t make a living and you can’t take advantage of the resource.”
Albea says the NCCFRG would like to sit down with the fisheries stakeholders and discuss the shape the fisheries are in and how they can address it.
For Cross, he doesn’t mind the regulations, as long as he can see the data and the science behind it.
It will do whatever it takes to keep its fisheries healthy, but it will not rely on what it calls sweeping programs that only benefit certain fishermen.
“You will never see a commercial fisherman trying to stop a recreational fisherman from trying to catch fish. Everyone wants to catch fish, ”Cross said. “But don’t try to stop a man from earning a living there by overregulating or biased regulation.”