Starting today North Carolina recreational anglers will have the chance to speak out on one of the true remaining outrages in USA fishing as four public meetings will be held to address the practice of inshore shrimp trawling.
NC remains the last state on the Atlantic Coast, and one of the last states with a coastline at all, to allow commercial shrimp trawling in inshore waters. Around half of the shrimping on the NC coast is done in the inshore sounds, bays, and estuaries which are prime nursery habitats for developing fish such as weakfish (gray trout), spot, croaker, flounder and many others.
Shrimp fishermen in NC primarily use otter trawls, non-selective gear which is pulled behind a boat for long periods of time while raking the bottom and catching unwanted species, called by-catch, along with the shrimp. Shrimpers do not want by-catch, but even among responsible shrimpers who make an effort to reduce the waste of by-catch, the survival rate of baby fish caught in otter nets is very low.
The massive killing of small finfish by shrimp nets in NC is far from new, but even the mention of it has been taboo at prior state fisheries meetings or in terms of actual policy. Despite massive changes to shrimping laws in other Atlantic and Gulf states, NC has been simply known as a place where such regulation could not apply, mainly due to the enormous political power wielded by legislators from coastal districts and a commercial fishing lobby opposed to almost any regulation.
The past few years, however, have seen some remarkable movement by state fisheries managers and elected officials in the direction of environmental responsibility while recognizing the growing economic importance of a productive recreational fishery. The reasons for this movement are complex, involving political changes and retirements, lawsuits and legal challenges brought by environmentalists angered at the interactions of fishing nets with endangered species, and the efforts of recreational advocates for rules changes.
There also appears to be growing concerns from some state officials that the destruction of so many small finfish in nursery areas while the populations for high-profile species like flounder, spot, weakfish, and trout are classified as ‘overfished’ and ‘depleted’ can no longer be justified. As the attached video shows, even a very responsible trawler who seeks to save the lives of his by-catch (which not all do) is not likely to be very successful.
But most telling, recent studies by Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) biologist Kevin Brown have produced numbers virtually impossible to ignore. His data indicate that an estimated half a billion finfish per year are killed and wasted. And as apologists for the current trawling procedures have already tried desperately to discount this massive study, the impact is clear: in a state where so many important commercial and recreational fish stocks have been considered officially depleted for so long the effect of inshore shrimp by-catch can no longer be ignored.
At the August meeting of the Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) a recreational advocate group, the Coastal Fisheries Reform Group (CFRG), asked the MFC to mandate the removal of otter trawls in place of skimmer trawls, nets used in some other states which cause less disturbance to the bottom and produce less by-catch. The CFRG spokesman at the MFC’s August meeting was Joe Albea, the host of a popular outdoors show on public television. Albea told the MFC that, “If the by-catch is even half what the studies said, that’s still too much.”
The fact that inshore trawling is somewhat officially being talked about at all is a good sign for NC, but any change to the regulations will likely be slow and difficult. The MFC voted to hold the four public meetings as part of the development of a shrimp Fisheries Management Plan, a draft of which recommends continuing the research on shrimp trawling but making no changes. The MFC will decide at its Nov 7-9 meeting whether it will proceed with the draft FMP or actual seek to act on what it already knows and finally slow the carnage of trawling by-catch.
Of course, many rec anglers have long been angry about the waste in inshore shrimp trawling. To blame the average commercial fisherman, though, is to miss the point. There will always be an argument to be made about sacrificing some by-catch to the economic health of the community and jobs. It’s true the state’s commercial shrimpers can legitimately claim to be enduring hard economic times, and also point out that low-priced imported shrimp, a generally inferior product, is chasing them from the market.
However, the extent of the depletion of finfish stocks due to inshore trawling is so extreme virtually every other state has banned it or highly regulated it. Mr. Albea is right, if the numbers are half as bad as they look it is just not worth it. Many of us who have been on trawlers and seen this culling of dead finfish have often wondered what the overall totals, day after day and year after year, would be. We will never completely know the complete impact of this waste, but our current DMF studies suggest it is hard to believe it is anything other than staggering.
For now, though, advocates for change will have to be satisfied that the issue of inshore trawling is at least, at long last, finally being discussed in an official capacity. The DMF is recommending the MFC simply revise the Shrimp FMP when in fact the MFC should reopen and amend it, because we without amendment will have five more years of the destruction of otter trawls in the name of more studies, a route NC has gone through before.
It is likely that NC will one day reach the same conclusions as the rest of the country about the devastating waste accompanying inshore trawling, but as is usually the case it will only be after a preponderance of evidence has been disregarded for years.
The public meetings begin today. Interest parties who cannot attend a meeting can email their comments to Nancy Fish at email@example.com. The meeting schedule is:
Sept. 19 at 4 p.m. Southern Advisory Committee Meeting
N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Wilmington Regional Office
127 Cardinal Drive Extension
Sept. 27 at 4 p.m.
Northern Advisory Committee Meeting
Vernon G. James Research & Extension Center
207 Research Station Road
Oct. 2 at 1:30 p.m.
Habitat and Water Quality Meeting
N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Washington Regional Office
943 Washington Square Mall
Oct. 2 at 6 p.m.
Craven County Cooperative Extension Office
300 Industrial Drive
New Bern, NC
For much more fishing information and tips see my blog A Dash of Salty and my book Surf and Saltwater Fishing in the Carolinas