By Outer Banks Voice on January 22, 2018
A proposal to tighten the requirements to get a commercial fishing license in North Carolina is nearing review by the state Marine Fisheries Commission following recommendations from a committee last week.
But any changes to the rules for being able to carry what is known as the Standard Commercial License would require the final approval of the N.C. General Assembly.
The panel, which was made up of commission Chairman Sammy Corbett, a commercial fisherman and dealer, recreation member Chuck Laughridge and scientist Mike Wickre, has submitted a list of five requirements. They will be subject to public comment before their presentation to the full commission at its February meeting in Wrightsville Beach.
Corbett noted in a press release from the Division of Marine Fisheries following the Jan. 11 meeting that the committee’s proposals “are not etched in stone.”
While the group’s meeting last week in Morehead City was open to the public, concerns have been raised over how they came about the proposal.
Because the committee was composed of just three commissioners, work on the plan took place in a less-than -open environment, according to some commercial industry advocates.
The meeting lasted just 30 minutes before the options were read into a motion, causing many to feel that the decisions were made outside the public’s eye.
Supporters of making changes to the rules, including Corbett, say that a number of recreational fishermen buy the $400 commercial license simply to get around catch limits, and then never sell what they catch.
“And if that in fact is happening, then it is an enforcement issue,” said Outer Banks Catch Chairperson Sandy Semans Ross. “Commercial fishing vessels must have a registration number on the vessel so they are easily spotted.”
“If a boat docks with a large catch and there is any question, Marine Patrol can ask who they are selling to and request a copy of the Trip Ticket when sold,” said Ross, who heads a group that promotes selling and serving locally-sourced seafood in stores and restaurants.
Commercial fishermen must submit what is known as a “Trip Ticket” to the state each time they work on the water, detailing how much seafood they catch and sell.
There have been claims that high-end sports fishing boat owners may actually be skirting state tax law by carrying a commercial fishing license, and using it to claim exemptions for the vessel, gear and other items.
Ross said the state Department of Revenue could solve that issue just by checking income tax returns.
“If it’s enough not to be considered a hobby, there are probably some pretty strong fines they can levy as well as recoup sales taxes exempted in the past,” Ross said.
Note: Ross is also a longtime journalist covering the Outer Banks, and contributes stories to The Outer Banks Voice on fisheries and other issues.
While around 2,973 licensed fishermen sold their catch last year, at least another 4,000 license holders did not, according to Division of Marine Fisheries statistics.
Many in the industry dispute that, and say a number of licenses holders who have left the business simply pay the fee each year so they don’t lose them if, or when, the state tries to change the rules.
Or they hang on to them in case their children or grandchildren decide to work on the water, and want to save them the hassle of just getting the permit.
However, there is a more common reason why a number of commercial license holders never fill out a Trip Ticket with their license number on it at a fish house when they sell the day’s catch.
“Many license-holders, especially on small boats, began working together so that they could cut expenses when gas was so high,” said Ross. “When they sell to a dealer, the catch goes under one name and then they split the check.”
That means only one person will have their name on the Trip Ticket but they are both commercial fishermen. Also many license-holders occasionally fish on their own but then help someone else a majority of the year.
“They are still full-time fishermen, but their names don’t appear on Trip Tickets,” according to Ross. “Number of trip tickets shouldn’t be used to try to determine how many active fishermen there are.”
The Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, a recreational fishing lobbying group, is among those in favor of wholesale changes to the licensing policies.
The organization said in an email newsletter sent prior to the Jan. 11 meeting that changes to the process would close loopholes that allow commercial licenses to be sold or assigned on the open market.
“The debate should be about improving the opportunities for full-time commercial fishermen, and easing the stress on an overexploited resource,” said CCA Executive Director David Sneed. “But go ahead and get ready for the predictable cry about how this will mean you will no longer have access to fresh, local seafood.”
In an email to General Assembly leaders on Jan. 9, Jerry Schill, director of Government Relations for the North Carolina Fisheries Association Inc., which lobbies for commercial interests, questioned the effort.
“Despite the overwhelming opinions of commercial fishermen that favor the current definition, a vocal minority keeps pushing an effort to further curtail the numbers of commercial fishing licenses in North Carolina,” Schill said.
“This one issue has been debated often over the years with the result always being to leave it alone,” Schill added.
In the same email, Schill asked lawmakers to reinstate a joint House and Senate committee to provide more oversight of marine fisheries issues.
The proposals from the committee include requiring 50 percent of earned income from the Trip Ticket Program.
Fishermen would have to submit at least 36 trip tickets per year to remain eligible for the license.
And to address issues for crew members who do not have individual trip tickets, but are bona fide commercial fishermen as crew or any commercial fishing interest in North Carolina or outside the state, they would have to provide proof of income of $10,000 or more per year derived from the industry.
The proof of income would come from a commercial fishing operation or company that conducts business in North Carolina.
The commission could decide if those three items can be adopted as stand-alone policies, or combine any or all of them.
An Inactive Standard Commercial Fishing Licenses that does not meet any of the above requirements with a three-year running average, would go back into a special pool.
They could then be reissued to the original holder, subject to commitment to any of the three proposals without going through the eligibility pool.
The state limits the total number of commercial fishing licenses issued each year, with first-time applicants having to essentially go through a lottery process known as the eligibility pool before they are granted a license.
The panel also wants to create a Heritage Standard Commercial Fishing License that families may want to maintain if they are inactive.
That license would cost $100 per year and may be reissued one time to a family member without going through the eligibility pool or any of the first three requirements.
If the re-issuance of the license is not wanted, a one-time fee of $100 will retire that license number.
“The real question is what are the really after,” said Ross. “Where did the 36 trip tickets come from? What about fishermen who just crab pot for peelers in late May or June?
“There is no professional license in the state the requires a certain portion of income from that profession in order to qualify,” Ross said.
Ross noted that some commercial fishermen who fish for market part of the year will also run recreational charters, and then are waterfowl guides during hunting season.
“These options could cause them to either do more commercial fishing or work less at their other occupations — basically, the state would be telling them how much income that they would be allowed,” Ross said.
Ross and others agree that the income dictate may be a violation of state and federal law.
Members of the public wishing to comment on the proposals may do so during the regular comment period at the Feb. 14-15 commission meeting at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort in Wrightsville Beach. The public comment period will begin at 6 p.m. Feb. 14.
The public may also comment by email to CommercialLicensesComments@ncdenr.gov. Comments can also be mailed to Commercial Licenses Comments, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, Marine Fisheries Commission Office, P.O. Box 769, Morehead City, N.C., 28557. Written comments must be received by Feb. 9.