Op-ed: E-mails push boundaries on fisheries panel

By on February 15, 2017

 By Sandy Semans Ross

With a critical vote pending on a petition to limit shrimp trawling in state waters, a member of the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission made no secret of his position in an e-mail to a concerned chef from Charlotte.

The e-mail was among several by Commissioner Chuck Laughridge to people who had submitted written comments on the petition, which supporters say is aimed at protecting fish species that are discarded as by-catch after they are hauled in by shrimp nets.

Laughridge wrote the e-mails despite warnings from the commission’s lawyer about conducting business outside of public meetings and expressing opinions on pending issues before the fisheries panel has fully debated and voted on them.

We at Outer Banks Catch are troubled by these continuing private communications. The commission is already under the cloud of a 2016 audit that cited several potential violations of open meetings laws in e-mail communications among its members.

With the potentially devastating impact of limits to shrimp trawling on commercial watermen and consumers up and down the East Coast, the commission more than ever must be above-board.

Commissioners are scheduled to vote Thursday on the petition by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. It would limit shrimp trawling in the state’s sounds and within 3 miles offshore in the ocean. Approval would designate the areas as critical nurseries for various fish species.

Chuck Laughridge

Laughridge occupies a commission seat for recreation fishing interests. He is also an outspoken member of the Coastal Conservation Association, which presents itself as an advocate for recreational anglers.

In recent years, the CCA has wielded increasing clout — some say out of proportion to its membership — on decisions affecting state fishing regulations.

Among a batch of recent e-mails received after a records request is a response from Laughridge to a Charlotte chef who had voiced concerns that limiting shrimp trawling and reducing catch could hurt his business.

“There are always inaccurate pieces of information on any issue such as this one and good science with a dose of common sense will hopefully prevail in this one,” Laughridge responded.

“Do you serve any weakfish (gray trout) in your restaurant, or spot, or croaker? These along with other species both fin fish and invertebrates are impacted when excess by-catch of non-target species have mortality that is not acceptable, and in this case we could be talking as many as half a billion or a low of a quarter billion (with a B) of /7 inch fin fish (commonly referred to as Age 0 since they have yet to reach sexual maturity and spawned at least once which by the way is not a good thing.)”

Similar estimates of by-catch have been circulated by the Coastal Fisheries Reform Group. In 2012, former Division of Marine Fisheries Director Louis Daniels wrote to the group and asked it to stop posting such estimates and other erroneous information because it was not supported by data.

Laughridge also told the chef that “in his humble opinion” reducing shrimp trawling could result in more landings and lower costs. No economic data has been gathered to support that conclusion. The required economic impact statement on the proposed petition has not yet been provided, although the petition process requires one before the MFC can accept the petition for consideration.

See the e-mail exchange here »

In 2016, an audit of several items related to the Marine Fisheries panel and the Division of Marine Fisheries noted multiple violations of open meetings law by commission members. But none of the public officials and agencies receiving the report asked the State Ethics Commission to investigate. The Ethics Commission didn’t respond to several requests about whether they were alerted to the violations.

Mike Tadych of the Raleigh-based Stevens, Martin, Vaughn and Tadych law firm, a media attorney for the North Carolina Press Association’s Legal Hotline, said he was not aware of any law that mandates such reporting.

In 2013, state Sen. Bill Cook introduced a bill making violations of the state’s Open Government laws a Class 3 misdemeanor. But after it passed the first reading in the Senate, it was sent to the Judiciary Committee and never taken up again.

Following the recent meeting of MFC advisory committees to take comments about the proposed shrimping petition, many of those submitting written comments sent them to the MFC board members.

Some received responses from Laughridge.

Commissioners are not issued state e-mail addresses, so the communications go to their personal e-mail accounts and can’t be searched independently by DMF staff. E-mails provided as a result of the records request didn’t include some of the responses already in the Voice’s possession.

Laughridge appeared to be aware that such correspondence is public record. In a post dated Feb. 29, 2016 on the NC Waterman forum site, he discussed another request for his e-mails after the state audit was made public.

He wrote: “You’re correct Ray. I sent emails that I had on my public record email (sobxl1@gmail.com) from me to other commissioners.

“Ones sent to or with Dr. Daniel cc’d on were not sent to Patricia Smith, since they are on the NC server for the email Dr. Daniel uses.” Smith is a public information official with Marine Fisheries.

Laughridge went on to say, “Can’t recall being told to maintain emails or not to delete, and on my other two email accounts (Road Runner, my personal email, and Microsoft Office, my business encrypted email) I can delete and take off of/out of my Inbox, can do same with Gmail (delete is Trash), and if not recovered by the end of 30 days they self-delete. I found this out when the request was made. There is an Archive option on Gmail, but I wasn’t aware of it til my daughter pointed it out last week.”

See the discussion here »

Because the petition on shrimp trawling has not yet been acted on by the MFC, Laughridge expressing his opinions in the recent e-mail may be cause for concern.

One of the e-mails cited in the 2016 audit was from Phillip Reynolds, the attorney for the MFC who works in the Attorney General’s Office. The lawyer alerted the board that since a quorum of the board planned to attend a meeting of a charter boat captains group on the possibility of the state requiring log books, he had instructed DMF staff to issue a notice of a public meeting.

Reynolds also warned the commissioners not to ask questions, offer comments on the issue or answer questions about how they intended to vote. To do so, he said, might indicate bias in a matter yet to come to the board.

See Reynolds’ e-mail here »

Included in the e-mails targeted by the auditor is one dated Feb. 9, 2015, after DMF staff had sent an e-mail with answers to commissioners’ questions to the entire board as well as former DMF director Louis Daniel.

Then-commissioner Anna Beckwith and Commissioner Mike Wicker used the e-mail as a starting point to discuss a possible implementation of log books for for-hire fishing boats and how to get “buy-in” from the captains. Beckwith’s husband is a commercial fisherman and a charter boat captain. Wicker is a biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is serving in the MFC seat designated for a scientist.

On Feb. 10, 2015, Reynolds responded to the thread to alert them that by discussing commission business, they were violating the Open Meetings law. He also reminded them of the consequences if sued for the violations, which include individual board members possibly having to pay attorney fees if found guilty.

In July 2015, Reynolds again chastised the board when Wicker and Beckwith discussed commission business. In that instance, the conversation was prompted by a notice of an application to extend an existing pound net.

Wicker and Beckwith both objected to granting the extension — and others like it — because, they said, they didn’t want more gear in the water when they were planning on a moratorium on granting such requests.

“There is no logical reason why we would allow additional gear in the water that would target flounder which will reduce further escapement opportunities for this species during their spawning migration,” wrote Beckwith.

Beckwith and Wicker both wanted to know if there was a way not to grant any requests except for renewals while they worked on an amendment to the flounder fisheries management plan.

In response, Reynolds reminded the board that there was no moratorium in place and that, in fact, a motion to impose a moratorium made several months before failed to pass.

When the audit was released in 2016, Laughridge wrote on NC Waterman forum that e-mails would be provided to the board at its next meeting but that didn’t happen.

According to DMF staff, copies of the e-mails were made and ready to be handed out at the meeting, but the issue was never brought up.

Sandy Semans Ross is a former editor of the Outer Banks Sentinel. She is executive director of Outer Banks Catch, which opposes the petition to curtail trawling for shrimp.



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