Tar Heel Tattler - July 2006

Fishermen: Pings lead to a net loss
By Edward Martin

Commercial fishermen have a message for the Navy: When Opie tosses that rock in the lake at the beginning of The Andy Griffith Show, it spooks the fish. So imagine what will happen if you bombard them with pings and beeps.

On the heels of a record-low catch in 2005 by the state’s struggling fishing fleet, the Navy is proposing a 660-square-mile sonar training range 60 miles off the coast of Swansboro. That worries some folks. “Will fish simply leave the area?” asks Louis Daniel, chief biologist of the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries in Wilmington.

The range would be south of Cape Lookout in a region known for grouper and snapper. The state’s commercial catch last year, valued at $64.9 million, continues a decline from its $110.6 million peak in 1995. The industry is so close to the brink that experts say the Navy shouldn’t create the range without close study. That hasn’t been done.

Spokesman Jim Brantley says the Navy assumes the network of underwater cables and microphones would have little impact. But Daniel says scientists know sonar affects whales and dolphins, so there’s no reason to suspect it doesn’t have similar effects on fish.

The declining catch is a complex problem. Daniel and Sean McKeon, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, say it has been caused in part by pollution, hurricanes and rising competition from imports. Regulations have hurt, too. Fishermen’s hauls of sea trout have shrunk because of limits on harvesting dogfish, which feed on them.

Another reason for the record low catch in 2005 was the collapse of menhaden fishing. Menhaden are used for fertilizer and other purposes, but Beaufort Fisheries, the state’s last menhaden fishery and factory, reduced operations drastically in 2005. Prices have declined, and the company has been fined several times for environmental violations. Fewer than 13.5 million pounds were docked, compared with 50.5 million in 2004.

For now, Brantley says, the Navy will consider fishermen’s concerns. But it continues to view the site off North Carolina’s coast as a prime candidate. Other possibilities are off Virginia and Florida. Meanwhile, the number of commercial fishermen in North Carolina dropped from about 5,000 in 2000 to fewer than 4,000 in 2005. “The industry is stressed to nearly the breaking point,” McKeon says.