Is Anyone Actually Studying The Science?

Last night I attended a hearing of the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. The MFC held a hearing allowing public comment on a proposal to close huge areas of North Carolina’s waterways to shrimping. The MFC will vote on the proposal this morning. Based on the body language of the members of the Commission, I am not sure they heard the voices of the coastal residents and coastal fishermen who pleaded with them not to pass the resolution.

There were members of local government bodies, County Commissioners, a State Senator, and others who pointed out what the economic impact of closing these waterways would be–not only on the fishermen and their families, but on the related industries, including tourism. How many people who live a short distance inland come to the coast for a fresh seafood dinner? What about the companies who repair boats, repair engines, provide fuel, repair nets, etc.? What impact will the sudden end of employment for the 2000 people directly impacted by this resolution have on the area’s economy? How many people in related industries will find themselves unemployed if the resolution is passed?

According to Glenn Skinner, Executive Director–North Carolina Fisheries Association, Inc.:

North Carolina has the second largest estuary in the U.S. with over 2.1 million acres or 3,281 square miles of estuarine (internal salt) waters. Currently approximately 1 million acres (47%) of our estuary is permanently closed to shrimp trawling and an additional 200,000+ acres are managed with seasonal closures, with a combined total of 1,207,463 acres or 1,866 square miles permanently or seasonally closed to shrimp trawling. These area closures, many of which were implemented 50+ years ago, were intended to protect areas identified as critical estuarine habitat and create safe havens or “nursery areas” for juvenile finfish and other marine species.

After decades of restrictions and monitoring, the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) acknowledges that they can’t determine whether closing over half of the second largest estuary in the country to shrimp trawling has resulted in increases of abundance for any particular species of finfish or the improvement/restoration of critical fish habitats within the closed areas. They also acknowledge that the potential benefits of additional area closures are unquantifiable as are the potential negative impacts, if any, to overall fish abundance or habitat from shrimp trawling under the current management strategy.

So what is the science behind the proposed closing of more waters to shrimping? Shouldn’t someone actually study the impact of the current closures before adding to them?

I haven’t lived in North Carolina long enough to understand exactly what the politics are behind this proposal. I am attributing the proposal to politics because scientifically it makes no sense. It is my hope that the panel that heard the pleas of the fishermen and the coastal residents will vote against the resolution.

Support Your Local Fisherman

Above is a picture of shrimp boats Tuesday morning at Union Point, New Bern, North Carolina. There were there so that their owners and crew could attend the meeting described below. We need to make sure we protect their livelihood.

Yesterday I attended the Joint Meeting of the Northern, Southern, Finfish, Habitat and Water Quality, and Shellfish/Crustacean Advisory Committee at the Riverfront Convention Center in New Bern, North Carolina. I am not a fisherman (I haven’t even done a lot of swimming in the ocean since I saw “Jaws.”), and I really don’t know a lot about fishing. I have learned over the years, however, that often the best conservationists are the people who hunt and fish because they respect the environment and observe changes in the population of the animals they are hunting or fishing. The meeting was called as a public meeting to discuss a petition from the North Carolina Wildlife Federation (NCWF) to change the rules on catching shrimp in the waters of North Carolina. One of my sources tells me that the impetus behind the petition is the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), which has in the past advocated for regulations that would severely limit commercial fishing.

There were three people who spoke in favor of the rule change—Blakely Hilderbrand, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, David Knight, a policy advisor for the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, and Jack Travelstead.

The three NCWF representatives painted a bleak picture of fishing in North Carolina if the new regulations were not passed. They mentioned that all the other states on the east coast of America have passed these regulations. Then the people in the other groups got to ask questions. It came out in the questioning that the population of one particular fish that the NCWF claimed was threatened was not threatened according to the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries. It was also noted that the states that had already enacted the laws that the NCWF was requesting had also seen drops in certain fish populations. It appeared that the penalties imposed on the shrimp fishermen didn’t help anyone except foreign countries importing shrimp. It was also noted that there are numerous variables that impact fish population—upstream pollution, chemicals entering the water from activities on the shore or upstream, storms, weather conditions, etc. I should also note here that one of the characteristics of the North Carolina coast is that a severe storm can change inlets and water current patterns. This would also impact the fish population.

At the end of the meeting all of the groups (other than the NCWF) voted to deny the petition to change the laws. This is not, however, the end of the story.

According to the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission website, the next public meeting will be in Wilmington, North Carolina, on February 15th and 16th. This issue will be discussed at that meeting. The decision will rest with the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission. I sincerely hope that they understand that the rules proposed in this petition could end the shrimp industry in North Carolina and eventually put the commercial fishermen out of business. There is no positive side to these regulations—they will not increase the fish population, they will only hurt the fishermen.


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In North Carolina right now there is a conflict between the sports fishermen and the commercial fishermen. Please keep in mind that in North Carolina the commercial fishermen are generally family business that have fished our waters for generations–they are not large commercial operations with no relationship to the area. There is currently a petition to turn our major fishing waters into shrimp nurseries. While all of us want to protect our local shrimp, this is not necessary.

Here are a few things to remember as you hear the discussion of this issue:

Measures proposed by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation (NCWF) were thoroughly considered by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF) and North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission (NCMFC) and recently addressed in the 2015 North Carolina Shrimp Fishery Management Plan-Amendment 1.


North Carolina, namely Pamlico Sound, is one of the few water bodies that supports commercial quantities of pink, white and brown shrimp in the south Atlantic.


Shrimp trawling effort peaked at 40,000 trips in 1982, and has declined since 1994 to an average of 7500 trips over the last 5 years, with the decline being completely unrelated to shrimp abundance.


North Carolina has the largest estuarine system within any one state of the entire USA. It is unique and caution should be taken in comparing management with that in other estuarine systems.


North Carolina is the only state that has formally designated primary and secondary nursery areas for juvenile fish, shrimp and crabs. All bottom-disturbing fishing gear, including shrimp trawls, has been prohibited in these areas for over 35 years.


North Carolina has 2,220,000 acres of estuarine surface waters with over one million acres or 48% of estuarine waters are closed to trawling. Using sound science, these vital habitat areas are protected by rules set forth in state legislation. (broken down below)


  • Since 1978 over 124,000 acres of estuarine nursery areas have been closed to trawling to protect juvenile fish and crustaceans.


  • There are approximately 77,000 acres of Primary Nurseries, 47,000 acres of Secondary Nursery areas, 37,000 of special Secondary Nursery areas, and over 78,000 acres of military danger zones and restricted areas are also closed to trawling for safety reasons.


  • Special Secondary Nursery areas can only be opened to trawling by proclamation from August 16 through May 15.


  • In the mid-90s the sea grass beds along the Outer Banks were closed to trawling to protect this critical habitat. North Carolina closed extensive areas of submerged aquatic vegetation located on the eastern shore of the Pamlico Sound from Oregon Inlet to the mouth of Core Sound to shrimp trawling in 1994.


  • In 2006 almost 92,000 additional acres were closed to shrimp trawling as part of the North Carolina Shrimp FMP.


North Carolina historically leads research to refine practices and develop devices to reduce bycatch, reaching a 70% total reduction in total juvenile finfish bycatch, and becoming the first state to require finfish excluders in shrimp trawls. Current efforts continue to seek further improvement.


North Carolina is recognized by states and the federal government as having one of the best fisheries data collection programs in the country and Scientists studying bycatch in North Carolina have cautioned that finfish/shrimp ratios tend to overestimate bycatch.


No correlation was observed in abundance indices of juvenile Atlantic croaker, weakfish, and spot and shrimp trawl effort for the last 21 years in analyses performed for the NC 2015 Shrimp FMP, and none are listed as experiencing overfishing.


  • The shrimp trawl fishery has been ongoing in the estuarine waters of North Carolina since 1917. Since that time landings, and abundance levels of spot, croaker and weakfish in North Carolina, have fluctuated widely, yet experienced peaks in the late 1970’s to mid 1980’s.


  • Based on extensive and current scientific data, fishermen are not overfishing Atlantic croaker and croaker are likely not overfished.


  • Based on a 2016 weakfish stock assessment, extensive scientific data and comprehensive analyses determined that fishermen are not overfishing weakfish. The lack of recovery in weakfish populations is primarily from natural causes, such as predation and diseases, which has prevented the stock from recovering.


  • Additionally, recent population assessments on weakfish show a strong correlation with decreasing juvenile numbers and rising striped bass and spiny dogfish abundance. Juveniles that are caught are returned to the ecosystem where many serve as forage, where they are consumed by many highly-prized sportfish that the recreational industry benefits from, as well as commercially important species.


  • North Carolina under the jurisdiction of the ASMFC, manages and conserves many migratory species. None of the plans, amendments, or addendums to do so have recommended a closure on inside shrimp trawling in North Carolina to ensure sustainability of these fisheries resources.


  • The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC), a federal agency, has developed a FMP for shrimp in the south Atlantic, with numerous amendments. None of its plans, amendments, or addendums have recommended a closure on estuarine and near-shore shrimp trawling in North Carolina to ensure sustainability of the fisheries resources within their jurisdiction.


  • Implementing an 8-inch size limit for spot and a 10-inch size limit for American croaker for recreational fishermen would be arbitrary considering neither species is experiencing overfishing.


To recommend such significant management measures by rulemaking on one of North Carolina’s most important fisheries without a thorough and objective review of pertinent science/information and existing management policies is disingenuous and irresponsible, and may very well lead to some serious unintended consequences.


The discussion of this issue is based on a petition. The State of North Carolina is required to respond to that petition. The fact that they are responding to the petition is not related to the validity of the petition–it simply a  recognition of the fact that the people who filed the petition were able to get the required number of signatures. The ideas this petition presents need to be voted down in order to protect the commercial fishermen of North Carolina.