June 19, 2008

N.C. Watermen United: An alliance still working after three years


“The defining moment came at a legislative committee meeting in Raleigh in 2004,” Ernie Foster said, looking back on events that brought charter-boat captains and commercial fishermen together to form North Carolina Watermen United.

The Hatteras charter-boat captain’s voice still registered the disappointment he felt that day when he saw that no watermen had been invited to speak about the fishing license legislation under discussion.

Captains Britton Shackelford of Manteo and Rom Whitaker of Hatteras also took cold comfort in what they saw in Raleigh, and a plan to strengthen the voice of watermen grew out of the three men’s discontent.

Shackelford built enthusiasm for the plan in Manteo and Wanchese, delivering the message in his trademark “fire and brimstone” style.  More reserved but no less passionate, Foster and Whitaker talked with watermen on Hatteras Island.

Back-to-back meetings in Wanchese and Hatteras confirmed broad support, and North Carolina Watermen United (NCWU) officially organized in April, 2005.

Strong support for the advocacy organization in Dare County is not surprising.

Commercial fishing was the parent of the Outer Banks charter-boat industry, and ties between the two groups remain strong.

Carrying anglers to fishing grounds became another spoke in the wheel of economic diversity for some Dare County commercial fishermen in the 1930s and 1940s.

Foster’s father was the first commercial fisherman in the area to design a boat especially suited for carrying charter parties, but the boat was also a capable commercial fishing vessel.

Built in 1937, the round-stern Albatross I is docked alongside her two younger and larger sisters in Hatteras.  The boats make up the Albatross Fleet, and Foster runs charters on all three.  In the fall and winter, he also fishes commercially for king mackerel.

Like Foster, Shackelford and Whitaker hook mackerel for the commercial market.

“I’ll also work drop netting when someone needs a hand,” said Shackelford, owner of Doghouse Sportfishing Charters.  He noted that he grew up commercial fishing and never went sportfishing until he was 21.

“NCWU works for the interests of watermen who make a living off the water,” explained Foster. 

Foster said contemporary issues, such as a growing web of regulations, the loss of wetlands and habitat, high fuel costs, and the loss of docking slips cement the historic alliance.

Although more of NCWU’s 300 members live in Dare County than in any other area, members come from counties all along the coast.

NCWU cut its advocacy teeth on the recreational fishing license bill approved by the legislature in 2004.  Lawmakers were poised to make changes to the bill shortly after the watermen organized in 2005.

“In the past when two or three captains might come to Raleigh to speak to a legislative committee or regulatory body, they were always perceived as speaking as individuals,” said T. Jerry Williams, a consultant and lobbyist who has worked for NCWU.

“It was only through organizing that the captains gained respect as a stakeholder in the process,” he said.

NCWU entered the license debate hoping to win support for repeal of the license, but the watermen couldn’t formulate an argument to trump the appeal of the projected $19 million annual revenue that legislators were told they could expect from license sales.

Scaling back the scope of their ambitions, NCWU did convince lawmakers to write a blanket license option for charter-boats and headboats into the legislation. 

Still, Foster and the other captains said the license debate drove home the absence of charter-boat representation on the state fisheries commission.

“Even though the state approved the blanket license, they still seem to have difficulty accepting that we exist and have difficulty giving us a place at the table,” Foster said.

Last year North Carolina Rep. Tim Spear, D – 2nd District, introduced legislation that would have added two seats for charter-boat industry representatives to the fisheries commission, but the bill met resistance at the committee level.

Sean McKeon, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association (NCFA), the state’s largest commercial fishing trade organization, said the charter industry and the commercial fishing industry face similar challenges in fisheries management issues.

“I think it is accurate to say that NCFA and NCWU find that our destinies are closely, if not inextricably, linked,” McKeon said.

From its inception, NCWU has been a strong advocate for fairness and integrity in fisheries management.

“Our goal is to make things better, not to do in someone else,” Foster said.

The group has weighed in on federal shark, snapper-grouper, and king mackerel regulatory measures that they said placed a disproportionate share of the regulatory burden on North Carolina commercial fishermen.

But, NCWU also looks beyond the minutiae of management plans to the broader socioeconomic impacts felt in every fishing village in the state.

In 2006 the group called on state officials to prevent the wholesale collapse of the seafood industry, a move that lead to a special fisheries commission meeting in Morehead City that drew hundreds of watermen.

And, NCWU members have said they would continue to press for solutions until the state charts a strategy to stop the collapse.

Policy-makers recognize NCWU as an important stakeholder in fisheries management discussions.

“Our history and heritage will owe quite a bit to NCWU as it looks out for what is best for our coastal communities,” said state Senate President Pro-Tempore Marc Basnight.

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