The Rot at the Core

October 3, 2001

Four years after North Carolina passed the most progressive fisheries reform legislation in its history, many saltwater anglers remain disappointed and pessimistic. The Fisheries Reform Act of 1997 (FRA) promised restoration of overfished stocks and the real possibility of sustainable fisheries in the new millennium. Recreational interests, we thought, were at long last to play a roll in management. Yet today fish stocks remain in poor condition, and after 13 years of organized effort, anglers are probably no more influential than ever. The reason is that the basic problem has yet to be addressed.
Despite restoration of Atlantic striped bass and king and Spanish mackerel stocks, accomplished by regional and federal agencies, the rest of the local lineup remains poor. Ten of 34 finfish stocks remain overfished, including red drum. Albemarle Sound striped bass still run small 12 years after recovery efforts began, and Pamlico Sound and Cape Fear River stripers remain scarce. Eight stocks are viable, the biologists say, three are recovering, and five are classified as “under concern,” while the status of the remaining eight is unknown. Progress under the legislation has been slow.
The main impediment to progress is politics. While some angler activists have given up hope, others speak of a new determination to rescue North Carolina fisheries from unfair and unwise management and at last drag the state, long resistant to conservation, flapping and grunting into the 21st century.
“The good news,” said Nick Blackerby, president of the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina (CCA-NC), the state’s largest and, until recently, only angler advocacy group, “is that the people are becoming more aware of the predatory practices that are destroying our natural resources and want something done about it. History is on our side.” CCA-NC chairman, Bill Harrell, said eliminating politics from fisheries management is the necessary first step. “Until we have a structure in which all the state’s citizens have a voice,” he said, “and not just a handful of seafood dealers and processors, we will never see management that will conserve and protect our fisheries.”
The FRA initially was North Carolina anglers’ Holy Grail – our vessel for hope. Language for it had been lifted verbatim from the federal Magnuson-Stevenson Act, language that required conservation and restoration of overfished stocks. What could go wrong?
Politics. A succession of legislative measures to weaken the FRA, followed by the failure of a saltwater recreational fishing license bill in the General Assembly last year, were evidence that the promise of a new day in North Carolina remains far from realized. For four terms, Jim Hunt was a pro-jobs politician from the same mold as most southern governors. Yes, the FRA was passed under his watch. But appointments to the state fisheries board during his final term seem to have been studiously selected to tip the scales to the commercial side, defeating the FRA’s attempt to achieve the required balance – three commercial, three recreational, one scientist and two at-large seats. All of the commercial and some of the scientific and at-large appointees have been predictable supporters of “traditional use,” a euphemism for single-minded concern for economic consequences to the commercial industry. At best, traditional use means foot-dragging. At worst, it ignores the public’s concern about overfishing and elevates unsustainable exploitation above conservation.
As a consequence of the governor’s recent appointments, commercial interests continue to dominate state management. Last year, despite nays from the recreational seats, the commission passed a plan that had a slim chance over 14 years to restore a once-important river herring fishery. This plan, the governor’s commission said, would allow continuation of traditional use for the approximately two dozen herring fishermen left. Similarly, at year’s end a plan for overfished red drum seemed headed toward endorsement of failed status-quo management, with a dollop of unfairness thrown in. Anglers are required to cut their harvest severely while commercial fishermen are permitted to harvest at record rates. If that kind of management is the best we may expect from the FRA, then it is a fraud and a failure, and real reform is needed.
This state of affairs has its roots in history. For years, coastal legislators have had their way with fisheries in the General Assembly, customarily trading votes for pet projects of inland lawmakers for support of legislation that keeps commercial fishermen and processors in the management driver’s seat. It has not been long since the old Division of Commercial Fisheries, a transparent service agency for the industry it was supposed to regulate, was renamed Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), but much of its old character and orientation persists. This is due to a traditional alliance between the governor and the legislative leadership. That alliance has resulted in majority pro-commercial appointments to the policy board and pro-commercial hires to DMF leadership. At the same time, it has set up a dependable roadblock against legislation the state’s large corporate commercial fishing and processing operations deem unacceptable. As a result, the short-term interests of about 4,000 commercial fishermen prevail while 600,000 saltwater anglers strive and hope for a little influence in management.
All this matters not only to local anglers, but also to commercial and recreational fishermen all along the Atlantic coast. The estuarine complex dominated by the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds is second in size only to the Chesapeake Bay. Its productive capacity is unrivaled, in a good year yielding nearly half of East Coast fishes, including a large percentage of the summer flounder, speckled trout, red drum, weakfish and many other important predator and prey species. A goodly portion of the fish harvested in the region uses the North Carolina estuary as a nursery. Its importance to local and regional fishers, commercial and recreational, cannot be overstated.
As in other states, studies reveal that recreational use of finfish resources has economic benefits far in excess of that from commercial use. North Carolina generated $673 million in recreational fishing expenditures in 1996, according to a study by the American Sportfishing Association, for an economic impact of almost $1.3 billion. Only Florida, Texas, California and New Jersey benefited more. The commercial fishing industry, by comparison, generated $116.2 million in income, according to a 1997 report by the DMF, mostly from crabs and menhaden. The commercial sector typically takes more than 90 percent of the marine harvest. Bycatch in the shrimp fishery alone has recently run triple recreational landings. Traditional-use advocates, presented with such studies, argue that economic disparities are irrelevant.
An attorney turned fisheries activist named Bob Lucas spearheaded passage of the FRA. He got Governor Jim Hunt, to whom he had been incomparably helpful in winning office, to appoint him MFC chair. Lucas could not have done it without the help of CCA-NC, active in the state since 1988, and its allies, notably the Sierra Club and Environmental Defense. In a campaign that will not likely be duplicated in 100 years, he pulled off a political miracle, guiding through the process a law that, assiduously applied, might have ended unsustainable exploitation of marine public-trust resources. But it was inevitably going to hit some powerful people hard in the pocketbook – a reality that eventually led the FRA to be neutered and tweaked into a tool to maintain the status quo.
The angler group then put all its eggs into the recreational saltwater license basket, for three years postponing initiatives on bycatch, destructive gear and other management issues for fear of jeopardizing the license. Members objected individually to two potentially environmentally destructive industrial plants the governor announced for coastal rivers while CCA-NC officially stood strategically mute. Appointees to the MFC and to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council who objected on behalf of the resource to more polluting industry on North Carolina’s estuarine tributaries were not reappointed when their terms expired.
Last year, North Carolina anglers, new to cut-throat politics, were duped. CCA-NC trusted misleading statements from Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, a Democrat from Manteo, which indicated he would allow in the 2000 session a version of a license bill that passed the lower house in 1999. But after signaling support, Basnight let the session close last summer without allowing the bill to be considered. Many anglers have vowed never to forget. But of course, Basnight’s commercial-fishing constituency couldn’t have it. They feared that a license would vest in the system more than a half-million anglers and thereby empower them politically. The license bill had to go, but CCA-NC’s friends in the legislature say Basnight was less than candid about his position on it.
The senator has been elected in his district by a total of less than 10,000 votes and for years has managed to be chosen senate president each session of the General Assembly. His position, based on the votes of less than 1 percent of the North Carolina population, has made him the most powerful politician in the state. On water quality issues, he is unassailable, winning the Conservation Council of North Carolina’s endorsement in last November’s election. But, allied with a few other coastal legislators, he remains North Carolina’s single most obdurate obstacle to progressive fisheries management.
In November, Basnight won in a landslide, and Democrats again captured the senate, ensuring him another term as president pro tem. Anglers may expect politics as usual, but late last year, CCA-NC took off the gloves. The advocacy group announced a new goal to reorganize the state’s marine fishery management apparatus, ban most nets from inside waters and license recreational fishermen. The reorganization would result in a policy board appointed by the governor and insulated from political influence by funding with licensing rather than appropriations. An existing model for it has long provided successful management of freshwater fish. The Wildlife Resources Commission has seldom been associated with controversy, much less persistent charges of mismanagement as have been aimed at the state marine fishery agencies.
The FRA was a good try, but it missed the target. Resource management cannot fairly benefit all citizens when it is daily under political influence from any quarter, be it recreational or commercial. The rot at the core of North Carolina marine fisheries management must be cut out before success and fairness are achieved and the state earns its place alongside progressive state fisheries administrations.


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