Commercial, recreational fishermen square off again at legislature

The House Wildlife committee approved two bills Tuesday to double the fees for commercial fishing licenses and set minimum size limits for a large percentage of the finfish harvest. Commercial fishermen are strongly opposed to both, but backers say they're aimed at restoring dwindling stocks.

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Laura Leslie
, WRAL Capitol Bureau chief
RALEIGH, N.C. — It's almost as predictable as the return of spring: Every session, one or more North Carolina state lawmakers will file a bill favoring either the state's commercial fishing industry or the recreational fishing industry.

The two sides have been at odds for years, each blaming the other for the state's dwindling supply of fish and accusing the other of mismanagement and waste. Fisheries management officials often find themselves caught between the two powerful and vocal lobbies, which then turn to state lawmakers to fight their battles in the General Assembly.

The House Wildlife Resources committee on Tuesday passed House Bill 486, Commercial Fishing License Reforms, which would, according to sponsor Rep. Larry Yarborough, R-Person, protect the state's commercial fisheries by setting stricter guidelines for who can get a commercial fishing license, how many licenses are issued and how they're allotted.

"North Carolina's commercial landings have been steadily declining over the last 20 years," Yarborough said, saying the decline is almost completely in finfish, rather than shellfish.

A 2018 study by the state's Marine Fisheries Commission found that only 46 percent of the people who hold commercial fishing licenses in North Carolina "actually sell fish and generate trip tickets," he said. The rest, he said, have licenses passed down in the family but aren't really commercial fishermen.

"These are really recreational fishermen acting as commercial fishermen. They’re not recorded," Yarborough said. "We have no way of knowing how much they catch or how badly they’re damaging the commercial fishery."

The bill would define a commercial fishing operation as one that either harvests 1,000 pounds of seafood a year or makes 15 registered trips. Those who don't meet those criteria for at least two of the five years before their license expires would have their licenses deactivated and, eventually, put back into the pool.

However, the measure would make up for the reduced number of commercial fishing licenses by doubling the fees – from $400 a year to $800. Recreational fees would increase by a few dollars.

Jerry Schill with the North Carolina Fisheries Association said commercial fishermen in the state are "overwhelmingly opposed" to the bill. He said part-time commercial fishermen would be driven out of business by the changes.

"There are some cases where a recreational fisherman will use this [commercial license] as a loophole," Schill said. "But this bill is throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

"We just came through a hurricane," he added. "Just a few months later, you’re going to double their license fees?"

The measure passed 6-4, not along party lines.

The committee also passed another measure, House Bill 483, "Let Them Spawn". It would instruct the Department of Marine Fisheries to set minimum size limits for fish with the goal of allowing at least 75 percent of each year's harvest to have spawned at least once.

The measure wouldn't apply to all species, Yarborough said. Red drum, for example, take five years to mature, he explained, so they would be exempt. But croakers, spot and flounder would be subject to the minimums.

"For the past five years, southern flounder has been going down 30 percent every year," Yarborough said. "We’re hoping to stop the decline."

The Fisheries Association is opposed to this proposal as well, calling it "lacking in common sense, scientific reasoning and a general knowledge of the biology of marine fishes," and warning that such a measure could lead to overfishing of female fish, which tend to be larger.

Reps. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, and George Cleveland, R-Onslow, spoke against it.

"I’m not sure they’re anywhere close to being endangered," Pittman said. "I wonder if this is not simply an attempt to remove these species from commercial use."

Neither Schill nor State Fisheries Director Steve Murphey was given an opportunity to speak on the bill. Yarborough said the committee was out of time.

Both measures still have to pass several more committees before they reach the House floor.

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