Watermen are up in arms about a proposal that
could restrict commercial fishing licenses to people who earn half
their income from fishing, fulfill at least three dozen trip tickets
annually and provide $10,000 a year per crew. Otherwise, they
could be kicked into an inactive pool.
“Those who do not meet the qualifications will be
wiped out,” says Hatteras charter boat captain Ernie Foster. “Coastal
fishing communities all will suffer because of this.”
At the November meeting of the North Carolina
Marine Fisheries Commission in Kitty Hawk, member Chuck Laughridge made
a motion for the commission to “develop a definition of a commercial
fisherman.” An ad hoc committee of three commission members later met
to hammer out the proposed standards. The committee recommendation will
be presented to the full commission at its Feb. 14-15 meeting in
Foster, owner of the Albatross Fleet, said that
about 15 percent of his gross income this year was from commercial
fishing. Many others also fish to supplement their income,
depending on opportunity and circumstances.
Fishing is hardly nine-to-five work, and on the
Outer Banks, it is likely to be one of several things people do to
piece together a living.
“One of the reasons commercial fishing is not
more full-time is the weather,” Foster said. Then there is the seasonal
nature of the fisheries, as well as gear requirements, regulatory
restrictions, quota shutdowns, and the costs of fuel and maintaining a
boat. “There are multiple variables,” he said.
The Dare County Board of Commissioners
unanimously adopted a resolution at its Jan. 22 meeting opposing any
change of the definition of commercial fishing.
Sammy Corbett, chairman of the Fisheries
Commission for about four years, said he is hearing plenty of outcry
from the commercial fishing community about the proposal.
“I’ve probably had 100 calls, most against it,”
the chairman said in a telephone interview. “A lot of charter boat guys
are against it, too, so it’s a pretty hot topic.”
Corbett, a lifelong commercial fisherman who
represents the industry on the commission, said that the panel
responded to a similar request from state legislators in 2016, but
nothing came of it. More recently, he said that a group of people
again broached the subject with lawmakers.
“I just know I’ve had three or four emails from
legislators that we look at this again,” he said. After
consulting with commission staff, it was decided to appoint a committee
of three members: himself, Laughridge and Mike Wicker.
The commission will send its recommendation to the legislature, where it will be acted on, put on a shelf, or die.
Although Corbett said he understands why people
are upset, he also has to represent all license holders and what is
best for the industry and the resources. He said he has heard concerns
about recreational fishermen abusing their commercial licenses to get
around recreational bag limits, as well as criticism about the high
number of inactive commercial licenses.
“To me, if you’ve got to have a definition to be
a commercial fisherman, you have to sell a fish – that would be one
trip ticket,” he said. “You’ve got to sell something, even if it’s one
time. That’s part of the job.”
Of the 9,000 or so in the state’s capped pool of
eligible standard commercial licenses, including retired, about 7,000
are actually issued, Corbett said. Of them, only about 3,000 licenses
have a trip ticket. Fishermen can currently renew licenses that were
held the previous year, otherwise the licenses are returned to a pool,
from which non-holders can apply.
But he stressed that he “doesn’t want to see anybody making money commercial fishing go away.”
Corbett, who sets the commission’s agenda, said
he made sure that an opportunity for public comment was provided in the
evening on Feb. 14, before the commission considers the matter the
following day. He said he is expecting a “whole lot of commercial
fishermen showing up and raising Cain.”
“I guess we could call it the Valentine’s Day massacre,” he joked.
Bill Hitchcock, a fisheries and seafood advocate,
said that attempts to narrow the definition of a commercial fishermen
has been a tactic for years by groups such as the Coastal Conservation
Association, a recreational fishing lobbying group.
In a brief telephone interview, Laughridge said
he was advised by an attorney to resign from the group when he joined
the commission. “I will not say I’m an active member,” he said. “I’m a
life member of CCA.” He declined to comment further about the proposal.
Hitchcock said the Fisheries Commission had
already studied the issue at length in 2010, when its Commercial
License Review Taskforce – established to review concerns about
availability and use - concluded that there was no need to change the
definition of a commercial fisherman.
In general, he said, license holders – say, to
operate a drone - once they meet the criteria, are not required to do a
pre-determined amount of work to hold their license.
“That’s crazy,” Hitchcock said. “The end goal (of
the CCA) is to reduce the numbers of commercial fishermen . . . This is
a select few ardent anglers going against the seafood consumer.”
But such restrictions proposed by the committee
would harm not only watermen, Foster said, but also all the
businesses that support them and that they support, such as fish
houses, marinas, tackle shops and restaurants. Commercial fishing,
whether done part-time, full-time or overtime, is an essential part of
the economic patchwork that is reality for many families.
“Everyone is besides themselves at the idea that
a piece of our economy would be wiped out,” Foster said. “I have
never heard any economist argue against financial diversification.”
On the Outer Banks, especially, there are limited
opportunities to make a living, he added. And fishing is not only a
traditional livelihood on the islands, it is its cultural
“The consequences of this for the present and
future generations are very significant,” Foster said. “And there are
no benefits to be derived.