Legislature eyeing another layer of fishing enforcement

By on June 25, 2014

coast guard

The U.S. Coast Guard already helps NOAA with enforcement. (USCG)

By Russ Lay and Sam Walker

While the Republican majority in Raleigh argues over widely differing state budget proposals for the fiscal year that starts July 1, they also appear to be at odds on whether to allow federal fisheries enforcement in North Carolina waters.

The state House and Gov. Pat McCrory want to enter a “joint enforcement agreement” with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and task the North Carolina Marine Patrol with enforcing both state and federal regulations in coastal waters.

But the North Carolina Senate went in the other direction by specifically saying they are opposed to the proposal.

When Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act in 2007, 45 states and territories became eligible to participate in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Cooperative Enforcement Program, operated by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

NOAA enforcement officers work side-by-side with local marine fisheries and conservation officers under the joint agreement to conduct inspections of commercial and recreational fish catches, along with checking shipments of seafood at venues like truck weigh stations.

In exchange for becoming the 25th state or U.S. territory to sign a joint enforcement agreement, the state would get federal funds that by some estimates range anywhere from $150,000 to $600,000 annually.

The money is intended to pay the salaries of current state fisheries law enforcement officers, hire additional personnel and purchase equipment and gear for enforcement activities.

While North Carolina remains the only coastal state not to enter into a joint agreement with NOAA, other inland states have passed on entering into the agreements with their marine and fisheries enforcement agencies.

Currently, the Marine Patrol enforces state laws within North Carolina waters, which extend three miles out. NOAA and the Coast Guard enforce federal laws beyond that point. Some are concerned that a joint agreement opening state waters to federal jurisdiction would invite even more regulations.

State lawmakers appear to be deadlocked on so many other issues crammed into their versions of an over $21 billion dollar spending package, there are threats they may just adjourn the session as early as this weekend and run state government on a continuing resolution until July 2015.

The joint enforcement bill has previously been submitted as separate legislation in both houses, but then became a part of the state budget proposed by the Governor’s Office and House budget writers.

Opposition to the agreement has crossed the political aisle.

NOAA Maine

NOAA and state fisheries enforcement officers conduct a search of a seafood freezer truck at a weigh station in Maine. (NOAA).

“I have major concerns that when we bring in a federal agency to jointly enforce, we’ll be told one thing now, and then a few years down the road they’ll use that position to make changes to how we regulate our fishing industry,” said Rep. Paul Tine (D-Dare).

“The reason (for the provision) is simply financial, which I don’t think is appropriate,” Tine said.

According to Tine, the current budget that expires June 30 took away $200,000 in state funds for the North Carolina Marine Patrol in anticipation of the joint enforcement agreement being signed.

Tine spoke on the House floor earlier this month supporting elimination of the joint enforcement provision from the budget, but it remained in the final version approved on June 10.

“In the Senate, we haven’t supported the gamefish bill and the joint enforcement bill,” said Sen. Bill Cook (R-Beaufort).

Specific language in the Senate version of the budget prohibits entering any agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service, and would keep North Carolina as the only state on the East Coast not to do so.

“I think the federal (government) needs to get out of North Carolina . . . we need to protect our commercial fishing industry,” Cook said. “In 15 or 20 years, federal regulations will run them out of business.”

Dr. Louis Daniel, executive director of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, has publicly expressed support for the JEA, stating that North Carolina could receive up to $600,000 in federal funding.

Daniel told the state Marine Fisheries Commission earlier this year his agency is “in the hole” $350,000 to the North Carolina Marine Patrol, because NCDMF has funded enforcement activities for two years under the assumption that the state would sign the joint agreement.

According to a story published by North Carolina Sportsman, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and a number of inland-based hunting and fishing associations are also backing the agreement.

The proposal has pitted commercial fishermen against lobbying groups that claim to represent recreational fishermen in North Carolina, such as the Coastal Conservation Association.

“We’re certainly in favor of the JEA, and the House language directed the Marine Fisheries Commission to pursue that,” Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina’s executive director David Sneed told NC Sportsman.

Commercial fishing interests are strongly opposed to the state inviting the federal government to become more involved in an industry they feel is already over regulated by Washington, D.C.

The Hatteras-based North Carolina Watermen United, a group composed of commercial fishermen and related industries, issued a resolution on June 6 opposing the agreement.

The resolution makes numerous references to states rights relative to managing fishing resources and rejects the argument that other states have adopted the agreement.

It also points out many states that have entered into the agreement “are not happy with it” now, but the resolution did not cite any specific examples.

Also cited in the resolution was a recent report by the U.S. Inspector General about possible corruption in the enforcement branches of NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Dare County Commission for Working Watermen, which operates as a subcommittee of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, also unanimously adopted a policy statement opposing the agreement.




County Dare, North Carolina
Dare County Tourism Board

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