Wilmington, N.C. — The state Marine Fisheries Commission voted Thursday to begin drafting rules that would limit trawling for shrimp in North Carolina's inland coastal waters, a move that many on the coast say could destroy the shrimping industry.
The decision came after months of wrangling between commercial and recreational fishermen, with the latter group arguing that trawlers are scooping up millions of young fish before they're old enough to spawn, effectively killing off fish stocks in the region.
The North Carolina Wildlife Federation petitioned the state – the only one on the East Coast that allows shrimp trawling in its sounds and estuaries – to reduce the size of trawler nets, limit how long nets could be pulled in the water, permit shrimping only three days per week and eliminate night-time shrimping.
"North Carolina has some of the most lenient shrimp trawling rules on the East and the Gulf Coast," said David Knight, a policy consultant for the Wildlife Federation.
Thousands of people signed petitions against the proposal, and commercial fishermen packed Marine Fisheries Commission meetings in recent months to make their stance known. Hundreds left in disgust Thursday after the commission overrode the recommendations of its advisory committees and accepted the Wildlife Federation's petition.
"What just happened today is appalling," said Brent Fulcher, who owns Beaufort Inlet Seafood in Beaufort. "The state process is broken."
Sharon Peele Kennedy, who comes from a commercial fishing family on Cape Hatteras, said shrimpers shouldn't be blamed for the decline of fish stocks.
"Development on our estuaries is to me the 100 percent factor more than commercial fishermen," Kennedy said.
Sammy Corbett, chairman of the Marine Fisheries Commission, said he thinks the Wildlife Federation went too far in its petition.
"I think you were right-minded, right-headed. I just think the petition is the wrong way to get there," Corbett said.
Other commissioners said they needed to take action to balance the needs of sport anglers.
"If we don’t do something positive very quickly for the resource and the habitat that we’re supposed to supervise and control, we’re going to just be supervising a hospice operation," Chuck Laughridge said.
"This petition isn't perfect, but in four years of being on the commission, we've accomplished very few things in the name of conservation," Mark Gorges said.
The commission will spend at least a year determining how to put the regulations in place, and officials said some of the rules the Wildlife Federation requested may never take effect.
Still, Fulcher said any limits on trawling will decimate North Carolina's shrimping industry.
"Your small boats are going to be out of business," he said. "They can't work offshore 3 miles. They can't work three days a week. They can't survive at that."