Capital Goods: November 2012

Catching grief in troubled waters

A few years back, a couple of commercial fishermen would regularly call me to lodge complaints about my take on their ongoing feud with recreational anglers. I would listen patiently to their gripes before replying, “You know far more about the fishery than I ever will, but I may know a little more about political power. You better wake up to the reality that Marc Basnight won’t always be in power.”

That day has dawned. Basnight, the political powerhouse from coastal Dare County and state Senate leader for longer than two decades, finally quit the legislature in 2010 after his Democrats lost their majority. Even before then, commercial-fishing interests in the state had become disaffected with their longtime champion. Maybe it was because he couldn’t protect them from every crashing wave of regulatory discomfort. Or perhaps they were unhappy that he hadn’t been able to gut and fillet the creation of a saltwater recreational fishing license.

Commercial fishing in North Carolina faces a lot of uncertainty these days, and it does so without a dedicated champion in the legislature, at least not one with the power Basnight used to wield. Commercial fishermen are coping with declining fish populations, increased regulation and overseas competition. As some fish populations have declined, the tussle between the industry and recreational groups has intensified, with more and better organized advocates pushing for carve-outs for the hook-and-line fishermen. The commercial-fishing industry isn’t big, and it isn’t getting any bigger.

Just in the past few years, commercial fishermen have seen new limits on wreck fish — the groupers and snappers that congregate around offshore wrecks — including entire sections closed. When federal regulators took a look at gill nets in the Pamlico Sound, they discovered more turtle deaths than were being reported. A lawsuit followed, then came new restrictions on gill nets. Fisheries officials have also been scrutinizing shrimp trawling in the state’s massive sounds and estuaries because of “bycatch,” juvenile finfish killed in nets.

Recreational-fishing advocates such as the Houston-based Coastal Conservation Association and the Coastal Fisheries Reform Group in this state have started beating the drum for further restrictions. Two years ago, they persuaded a House committee to hear a proposal that would set aside popular inshore species of fish — spotted sea trout and red drum — for recreational fishing only. Recently, they sent letters to state legislators urging that the most common form of shrimp trawling be banned in inshore waters.

In Basnight’s old chamber, new defenders such as Don East have taken up the industry’s cause. But the Pilot Mountain Republican isn’t going to go to the mat for issues outside his district. With each redistricting cycle, smaller rural populations mean fewer rural legislators, those more likely to back the industry. In coastal areas with large populations, commercial fishermen don’t enjoy clout because of their small numbers. In New Hanover County, for example, they make up less than 1% of the employed.

Political power also will do as it always has and follow the money. That may be the biggest problem facing the industry. In 2004, a study commissioned by the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries found that commercial fishing paid better than most jobs in coastal counties, but that their number is declining. Even in the counties where it’s most significant, Dare and Carteret, fishermen make up less than 5% of the workforce. In 2000, the state sold 9,711 commercial licenses with 5,892 used. In 2009, the numbers had dropped to 9,108 sold but 3,929 used.

The value of the catch has dropped, too. Commercial fish landings in North Carolina in 2011 were valued at $71 million, roughly $16 million less than a decade earlier. By comparison, North Carolina recreational fishermen spend better than $300 million a year on equipment. Total spending — including gas, food, lodging, guides, pier fees and bait — on fresh and saltwater recreational fishing is estimated at $1.9 billion annually. Commercial fishermen ignore these numbers at their own risk. Political reality in Raleigh has a way of catching up to dollars and cents.

Scott Mooneyham is editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com. Email him at smooneyh@ncinsider.com.