It will not be official until the Marine Fisheries Commission meets in late August, but a New Bern man’s petition to close North Carolina’s sounds and rivers to trawlers seemed to go down in flames Tuesday evening.
A joint meeting of the Finfish, Habitat and Water Quality, Sea Turtle, and Shellfish-Crustacian Advisory Committees focused on the petition, filed by Tim Hergenrader of New Bern at the Riverfront Convention Center. The meeting gave fisherman and others a chance to express opinions on the issue.
After several hours of statements from the large crowd, the four committees voted separately to reject the request with only one dissenting vote — that one being within the Shellfish committee — and one abstention in the sea turtle committee.
One fisheries commission officer estimated that more than 1,000 people attended the meeting, many to speak their piece and others to give support to the fishing industry. Only a couple spoke in favor of the proposed rule.
As a show of unity, many of the fishermen arrived in their shrimp trawlers, which began appearing off Union Point Park Monday. By nightfall, there were six trawlers and, by Tuesday’s 12:30 p.m. meeting, nearly two dozen of the large boats were at anchor off the point.
Hergenrader filed his petition on June 19 calling for a moratorium on fishing inside the COLREGS line — an internationally agreed upon line that separates the ocean from the sounds and inland waterways.
Hergenrader presented his petition to start the meeting.
“Contrary to what some are saying, this petition is not about ending shrimp trawling in North Carolina waters,” he said. “ … It is simply about nursery areas.”
State fisheries laws do not allow trawling in designated primary and secondary nursery waters. Primary nurseries are most often upstream in the estuaries where fish are birthed; the secondary nurseries are the areas to which they migrate and grow toward maturity before heading out to sea.
It is Hergenrader’s contention that the entire sound areas and river mouths should be designated as secondary nurseries. Citing Department of Marine Fisheries data, he said that several finfish varieties — particularly Atlantic Croaker, Weak Fish (gray trout) and spot, use these areas as nurseries and he says their numbers are being threatened by the trawlers, primarily as a result of their loss to by-catch — that is, unwanted fish caught up in the nets along with the shrimp.
“The data are there,” he insisted. “I believe that science supports the data … the nurseries need to be expanded to all inshore waters.”
It doesn’t take much guesswork to figure how the fishermen feel about Hergenrader’s ideas. A sign held up by Alexis Ireland, a member of a fishing family in Hobuken, expresses it most politely: “Send Hergenrader back to Nebraska.”
Ireland’s fiancé, Jeff Hopkins of the trawler Tamerlane, puts it more succinctly.
“He came off the idiot line,” he said.
Among the shrimpers’ problems with Hergenrader’s petition, they say, is that shrimping can take place only on the sound side.
“It would completely devastate the industry,” said John Skinner, a commercial fisherman from Newport. “We can’t fish on the Atlantic side. We have a lot of bad bottom there,” he said, making it impossible to use the nets. In addition, once the shrimp hit the Atlantic they quickly leave the area and migrate for Florida.
Besides, he added, most shrimp boats in North Carolina aren’t designed for the rigors of open water.
Louis Daniel, director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, addressed the committees following Hergenrader’s presentation. He came out quickly in opposition, stating that Hergengrader had no scientific support for his statements, and that the state should not act until research could be done to verify his claims.
“It is our belief,” he said, “that it damages the credibility of previously designated areas.”
He added that declaring all sound waters as a nursery was too vague: “All the waters of North Carolina serve as nurseries of some kind.”
Audience responses strongly supported keeping the waterways open for trawlers.
“I don’t want to eat shrimp from Asia,” one woman stated, while fisherman Jeff Hopkins noted that “There’s plenty of untouched water in the sound” that is already closed off as nursery areas.
Jerry Schill, representing an unofficial group he referred to as “Shrimp Defense,” noted that fishermen have made a number of sacrifices in adding devices to their nets that lessen their catch but help protect turtles and other marine life.
Other audience members protested the intrusion of government.
Hal James, a self-proclaimed avid recreational fisherman said that “I think the fishermen of North Carolina can do the right thing without the government taking control.”