The true toll of a treacherous bill on commercial fishing

By on June 15, 2017

If he had bothered to come, I wanted to explain what is obvious to me but apparently less so to others.

But he didn’t come, so I share my words with you.

I would have told him that the coastal economy as a whole is unique because of its proximity to the ocean and the sounds.

­The Outer Banks is even more unique because, although it is 110 miles from north to south and the combination of land and water makes it the largest county in the state, only 24.5 percent of it is land, placing it at the bottom of counties.

And of that, only 15 percent of the land is private, which constrains drawing many of the kinds of industries found in other places. The 85 percent owned by various levels of government is never expected to convert to private use.

The Outer Banks is on the way to nowhere, subject to the ravages of storms, and has an economy that is made up of a patchwork of activities, each dependent in some way on the others. Remove any one piece and the economic impact ripples through all.

Commercial fishing here dates back to the earliest colonists, and some of the practices of today trace directly back to methods taught to the English settlers by the indians – pound nets are the offshoot of weirs.

It provided the bulk of the money coming into the Outer Banks for centuries until the area became a major tourist destination. Even with the huge influx of outside money, commercial fishing remains an important employer and component of the economic base.

A substantial amount of the development in the region is vacation rental houses — the majority owned by investors from other parts of the state. While the local jobs created in construction, rental management and real estate sales helps support the local economy, the rental fees are sent to the property owners who spend that money in their own communities.

Tires purchased in Boone might be paid for with money earned in the Outer Banks rental market. Dinner purchased in Raleigh could be paid for with money earned in tourist destinations along the coast.

One of the important things drawing visitors to the coast is the lure of fresh local seafood — from dock to table. Local restaurants specializing in offering NC seafood depend on the availability of local seafood. Their business plans are based on it, and if it suddenly goes away, many of them also will either have to change their focus or perhaps shut their doors.

And there is a growing list of restaurants across the state who are staking their reputations on serving North Carolina seafood. If not available, they will feel the impact, too.

The Dare County commercial fishing industry is mostly invisible although there are approximately 1,000 commercial fishing licenses.

It is made up mostly of independent businesses employing one or many. They go about their work quietly, so there is no opportunity to view a bunch of men and women streaming into a manufacturing plant while carrying lunch pails.

They live, work and spend their money in all the towns and throughout unincorporated Dare County. Many derive all their income from commercial fishing and others split their time with charter boat fishing during the “season.” And still others are employed in other industries and commercial fish on the side. In the dead of winter, when so many businesses are shut down for the winter, commercial fishing becomes the job that pays the bills until Spring arrives.

Fish dealers which employ many would have no way to continue their businesses if the fishermen could no longer bring seafood to the dock. Dealers employ packers, cutters, shuckers, drivers, attorneys, accountants and others.

Many of the trucks purchased locally are by fishermen as are many trailers to haul gear. Banks hold millions of dollars in mortgages and notes loaned to fishermen for purchasing homes, vehicles and boats. If commercial fishing ceases, the economic impact to the local business community will go deep.

According to the 2016 commercial fishing statistics produced by the NC Division of Marine Fisheries, Dare County had dockside landings of 16.1 millions pound with an estimated value of $24 million. This was money paid directly to the fishermen who brought in crabs, oysters and finfish. This is direct impact, this is the money spent by fishermen in stores, on mortgages and loans, groceries, clothes, doctors, college tuition for their children and other items. And it doesn’t include the dealer’s sales after the seafood has been processed and packed.

Fishermen in Hyde County, one of the poorest in the state, brought in about eight million pounds with a dockside value of an estimated $12 million.

Although not all-inclusive, economists say that if you take the direct impact and multiply the number by 2.5, it will give a reasonable indication of the indirect impact — the impact of the flow and turning over of those dollars in the community. For Dare County, that would be $60 million; Hyde $30 million.

And we won’t even get into the loss of taxes such as sales, personal, property and fuel.

No rural county in the state can take that kind of a hit without serious economic harm.

House Bill 867 doesn’t just try to destroy the Fisheries Reform Act; it will severely affect the coastal economy as well as economies across the state.

This is a bad piece of legislation that runs contrary to claims by the NC Chamber of Commerce that they want to help lift up economies in Eastern North Carolina.

Before this bill is considered for passage, legislators — and the NC Chamber — should demand a fiscal note identifying the loss of revenue to North Carolina.

The system has never been fair to the commercial industry, and that statement is supported by all sorts of evidence.

Turtles are heavily protected, so fishermen have to abide by strict rules about when they set their flounder nets, how deep in the water, how they are anchored. If a few turtles are caught — even though tagged and released — the entire sound can be shut down to flounder fishing until it is deemed to be mostly turtle-free again. In 2016, most of the flounder season was lost due to sporadic turtle closures because of interactions, even though the turtles were released alive.

In comparison, turtles are caught on recreational hook and line every day, particularly from piers. Sometimes the turtles can be “walked” to the beach where the hook and line can be removed. But more often, the line is just cut. Necropsies often find the reason for turtle deaths is entanglement in monofilament from recreational gear.

Each Friday, a turtle stranding report is sent out by the Wildlife Resources Commission. It lists all reported stranded and dead turtles as well as those involved in incidental catches. Very few are from nets set by commercial fishermen.

Most incidental takes reported over the last several weeks have been by pier fishermen until the last two weeks. This past week, of 17 interactions, two were by hook and line fishermen and 15 were caught by the trawler that accompanies the dredge involved in beach nourishment in Duck. The turtles were tagged and released and work continued as it did the week before when it caught several others.

But the company doing the beach nourishment work is doing nothing wrong — they are working and the turtles are surviving. And, since they are tagged, they will add to the knowledge of the scientists who are studying their migration patterns and collecting other data.

What is the difference between the interactions off Duck and those involving commercial fishermen?

The Incidental Take Permit that allows the use of flounder nets when turtles are in the area and sets the rules was written by the former director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, who also is one of the authors of the shrimp petition and employed by the groups behind Sound Economy.

Sounds a little fishy, eh? The fishermen have become so used to something smelling rotten that they have learned to just keep working while trying to hold their nose.

And just who was it that I was going to say this to? Read on to find out.

Writer’s disclosure

We each have “rules” that we set for ourselves to guide how we live our lives.

I’m a person who wears many hats that can conflict with one another if I’m not self-disciplined. While some have to have a closet just for their shoes, I need one for just my hats.

They include journalist, Outer Banks Catch chairman, North Carolina Catch board member, former Democratic Party officer, fire chief, commercial fishing community activist and, much to my chagrin, more.

A meeting that I was asked to attend as a speaker on Monday called for my commercial fishing activist hat ,which meant all my others had to stay in the closet.

According to my rules, that meant that I could not report on the meeting since I was going to be part of the story. It would have been a conflict of interest and unethical because there is no way to cover something and participate at the same time without the product being biased.

I’ve had to put my journalist hat aside on many occasions, including during the most recent election season, when I actively campaigned for the party and its candidates. All the entities that I write for understand that and knew that during that time, I could only report stories that weren’t even marginally related to politics.

But the meeting time has come and gone and never happened, so I feel free to tell the story. It is being printed as a commentary because it is my view of what happened and includes no interviews with anyone else.

The Players
The North Carolina Chamber of Commerce issued a press release announcing support of a group named Sound Economy that is pushing a bill that, if passed into law, could effectively shut down commercial fishing within the next couple of years. Part of Sound Economy’s rationale is that the recreational industry has a larger economic impact so should get first and maybe even only dibs on catching fish.

House Bill 867 would destroy the Fisheries Reform Act, which dictates the fisheries management process in North Carolina. Since its adoption in 1997, the FRA has been heralded as the gold standard of fisheries management, and many states have adopted some of its features that fit its own fisheries process.

Sound Economy bills itself as a “coalition” of groups coming together to save the public trust resource. The truth is that it is the same entities that filed the petition to limit shrimping in North Carolina — the Coastal Conservation Association and the North Carolina Wildlife Federation.

The stacked Marine Fisheries Commission accepted the petition and it is now in the process set out for consideration of petitions. The MFC’s five advisory committees, which include recreational, commercial fishermen and scientists all voted against accepting the petition because it was devoid of science and contained blatant misinformation.

Of the 16 scientists who either serve on the advisory committees or spoke during public comment, only four supported the petition — all four were either employees or otherwise related to the petitioners.

In an attempt to appear that they have more support, the Sound Economy website shows others who have endorsed the bill — all sports fishing organizations and companies that make substantial profits off recreational fishing, as well as the individual chapters of the NC Wildlife Federation.

Not one legitimate environmental group in the state has endorsed the bill because they see it for what it is — a back-door attempt at a net ban without any justification.

The Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce which responds to legislation and other items that have impacts on the coast is a member of the state group which often supports legislation that negatively impacts the coastal region.

The meeting that almost was

At the time of the NC Chamber endorsement of HB 867, the local Chamber had not taken a position. The reason given by the local was that no one had brought it to their attention. That’s probably correct because even though the commercial fishing industry makes a major positive economic impact on the county, to my knowledge – there never has been any representation of the industry on its board or committees.

This created a huge problem since the state organization is assumed to represent the local Chamber unless the local one takes a position.

Some very loud voices were raised about the affiliation with the state group, which obviously doesn’t care about coastal issues.

The Outer Banks Chamber quickly passed a resolution supporting the fishermen and opposing the bill.

And there was a conference call set up with the NC Chamber to discuss the matter. During that call, an NC Chamber official expressed an apology for not realizing it might have a negative impact on the region. To show the state Chamber’s concern, it was decided that he would come to the coast to learn more about coastal issues. The date was set for Monday, June 12.

The Tuesday after the conference call during which the date was set, there was a meeting at the local Chamber to hammer out the details of the itinerary for the NC Chamber visit. It was at 3 p.m.

On the same day and very same time, the House Wildlife Resources Committee where the bill was assigned met to hear public comment. Among the speakers was NC Chamber lobbyist who endorsed the bill — even though the local Chamber had only the week before expressed their dismay.

Adding insult to injury, the same man who was to visit wrote a blog on the very next day which again endorsed the bill, but that wasn’t known locally until the weekend before the meeting date.

I was asked to participate on a panel to discuss the industry, the bill and related matters. I agreed to do so as an individual, not wearing any of my other hats.

My mind was kept occupied for days thinking about what I wanted to say and what I felt was important for him to know.

But all that thinking was for naught because early on Monday, he emailed the Chamber to say there was too much stuff going on in Raleigh, and he would have to come sometime in the future.

Not wanting my words to go to waste, I wrote this commentary.


  • John Smith

    This article is rediculouse. HB867 will bring more fish to the water with better less destructive fishing practices which in turn will bring more fish to the table, provided better commercial fishing incomes, provide more tourist income from fishing, and is a win win win all the way around. This article leads you to believe commercial fishing will end which is so far from the truth I can’t believe the OBX Voice would publish it. HB867 wants to stop “destructive fishing practices” and establish “sustainable fishing practices” which I don’t know who would be against that other than the individuals who own the most destructive fishing gear. NC is attempting to catch up with the rest of the country is harvesting fish with sustainable fishing gear. NC is still stuck in 1970 as far as fishing gear goes.

    Thursday, Jun 15 @ 10:28 am
  • Catherine T James

    Excellent Commentary!
    Thank you for not wasting your words. I would be happy to add a voice or more words on the subject if or when it’s needed. As a mom of two commercial fisherman who live and work on Hatteras Island in the conditions you so accurately describe
    I would be happy to “not waste my words” on those Raleigh politicians.
    Catherine T James

    Thursday, Jun 15 @ 12:02 pm
  • Colleen Shriver

    Well said!

    Thursday, Jun 15 @ 2:11 pm
  • Major Hooper

    Thank you for your objective demeanor, Sandy Semans Ross, and for your ability to navigate between duties associated with disparate positions you hold, with honesty, transparency and authenticity. In exposing the roots of the group “Sound Economy” and their strategy against Commercial Fishermen’s interests and by revealing the intentional disregard for our coastal communities by the top levels of the NC Chamber of Commerce, it is evident both groups are acting as shills in this supporting this Bill. The information demonstrating the lack of endorsement by scientists involved in objectively assessing the fisheries, clearly reveals that the “Sound Economy” group and the top echelons of The Chamber of Commerce are not acting in an honest, or transparent manner but, rather, avoiding any representation and input by Commercial Fishermen and both groups are acting as shills for an agenda of recreational fishing interests, alone. To support one set of people despite science, or devastating economic impacts upon Commercial Fishing and the fishing communities of Eastern NC, that have a tremendous, statewide impact on a variety of businesses and communities, is a sell out of NC resources (that belong to all Tarheels) to recreational fishing corporations…more Right Wing corporate-state collusion to undermine the Commercial Fishing Industry and Tarheels, statewide. This Right Wing, corporate-state collusion and ideology obstructs scientific objectivity, sorely needed to assess and protect the fisheries, for all people and future generations and is an attempt to circumvent the people’s will. Privatizing public resources is a national problem, as well.

    Thursday, Jun 15 @ 10:55 pm
  • Talmage Davis

    Well written and lots of people in NC and the Southest US do not realize the amount of seafood that the coastal States, counties, and town bring to our tables, restaurants, and seafood shop and packing plants to get it to us and the world. This bill will diminish the seafood ibusiness industry in NC.

    Friday, Jun 16 @ 1:52 pm
  • Seal

    Thanks John Smith ! Ive been fishing the OBX for fifty years and dont need a Biologist to tell me that the trawlers are killing our waters, I see it with my own eyes ! And what I really cant believe is the destructive practice of trawling the very nurseries that our fish stocks rely on to reproduce ! If HB867 goes under then the old saying ” You Cant Fix Stupid ” should be the new OBX motto !

    Friday, Jun 16 @ 2:48 pm
  • Browny Douglas

    “Stuck in 1970” There is mention of nets in the Bible with respect to actually feeding people. Don’t recollect any mention of hook fishing for fun though.

    Browny Douglas

    Friday, Jun 16 @ 7:19 pm
  • Clyde

    Theres no mention of several hundred diesel powered boats pulling multiple otter trawls, and throwing 40 to 80 percent of what the catch overboard in the Bible either !!!! That i can recollect !!!

    Saturday, Jun 17 @ 9:55 am
  • Mary Ann

    Why don’t you and your rich friends go back where you come from and leave our waters and Fisherman alone!!! You didn’t grow up here so you don’t belong here!!!!

    Saturday, Jun 17 @ 9:54 pm
  • Paul Yeager

    John Smith’s commentary sounds remarkably like the snake oil sales pitch that brought us Obamacare.

    If you want to fix a problem, first you need a problem to fix.

    If you have a problem to fix, use science, not backroom politics.

    Wednesday, Jun 21 @ 2:35 pm