Kitty Hawk, N.C. — On a sunny fall day when commercial fishermen would normally be on the water hoping for a big catch, many were crammed into a dimly lit hotel ballroom in Kitty Hawk on Thursday trying to head off proposed rules that could limit future catches.
The state Marine Fisheries Commission is considering a petition from the North Carolina Wildlife Federation to adopt regulations for shrimp trawlers operating in coastal sounds that would reduce the size of their nets, limit how long nets could be pulled in the water, permit shrimping only three days per week and eliminate night-time shrimping.
The goal of the changes, according to Wildlife Federation officials, is to protect fish nurseries.
"We have found doing the research – looking at the science, looking at the data and doing the analysis – that we are losing too many fish to shrimp trawling," David Knight, a policy consultant for the Wildlife Federation, told the commission.
"It's kind of crazy that it comes up now because we just passed, last year, the shrimp plan," commission Chairman Sammy Corbett said.
One of the proposals would cut the length of the head rope attached to the top of a trawler net from 220 feet to 90 feet.
"That's a huge, that takes probably three-fourths of the shrimp fleet out of the game," Corbett said.
Another proposal would limit shrimping to 36 hours per week.
"With a 36-hour per week season in internal waters, that would equate to a potential result of a 70 percent reduction (in catch)," said Brent Fulcher, chairman of the North Carolina Fisheries Association.
The petition is the latest battle in a long-running war between recreational and commercial fishermen, and shrimpers say they fear a way of life along the North Carolina coast is in jeopardy if the state adopts the latest set of proposed rules.
"We have just a few commercial fishermen left, and these laws will really affect us," said Robby Midgett, who said he's the ninth generation of his family to make a living from the coastal waters. "I've been doing this since I was a child."
"Let's not kid ourselves," said Jerry Schill, president of the Fisheries Association. "This isn't about limiting by-catch. It's not about protecting habitat. The ultimate goal is to ban shrimping in inland waters and to ban gill nets."
Environmentalists and recreational fishermen flatly denied that argument.
"It is not to put fishermen out of businesses but to restore our fisheries to where they should be," said Bud Abbott, chairman of the North Carolina Coastal Conservation Association.
The Marine Fisheries Commission has 120 days to study the petition and receive public comments on it before taking action.