Legislative Update

By David Sneed

CCANC Executive Director

Both chambers of the NC General Assembly have recessed for the week so I thought it would be a good time to update everyone on pending legislation with the potential to impact our coastal fishing resources. On Thursday, the Senate passed a flurry of bills before they recessed for the weekend, including a Veto Override of S99, the Appropriations Act of 2018.

The Senate will reconvene on Monday at 1:30 PM and the House Monday at 7:00 PM. The House will take up the S99 veto override during its Tuesday session, so the legislature is not expected to be in session for much longer than about two more weeks. Republican leadership has long expressed their desire to complete this short session as quickly as possible so candidates can return home to begin campaigning for the November elections.

House Bill 361, Support Shellfish Industry, was fast-tracked through the Senate this week first with a favorable report from the Senate Agriculture, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, then a quick favorable report from the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, before finally passing three readings on the Senate floor on Thursday afternoon.

The bill is now referred to the House for concurrence and is on the House calendar for Monday’s session. This “Oyster Bill” is championed by Sen. Bill Cook in an effort to help grow our state’s oyster mariculture industry. Sen. Cook envisions a North Carolina industry that is the “Napa Valley of Oysters”.

CCA NC has long supported seafood aquaculture, and particularly oyster mariculture, as an opportunity for North Carolina fishermen to have more long-term, sustainable fishing futures. We do, however, have several concerns with this bill in its current form beginning with the proposal to increase the maximum amount of leases one person, business or family can hold from 50 acres to 300 acres with no individual lease being more than 50 acres. This will have a substantial impact on the public’s access to public trust resource waters.

The commercial fishing industry also appears to be split in their support of this legislation also citing concerns with the potential loss of access to traditional fishing grounds. While this bill speaks directly to bottom leases there is little doubt that those bottom leases will lead to water column leases which will create even more boating, fishing and hunting access conflicts when you add floating oyster bags and cages into the equation. The bill does include a moratorium on new shellfish leases in the New Hanover County area and Bogue Sound to avoid user conflicts in these more heavily populated areas.

The bill also offers no quid pro quo discussion of removing destructive gear from the oyster industry, like mechanical oyster dredges, in exchange for giving up access to our public trust resources. There is also very limited protection for the state when a leaseholder terminates a lease and fails to remove all abandoned markers and gear.

The bill does offer some good ideas including the development of Shellfish Aquaculture Enterprise Areas, “an area designated and permitted by the Department that is subdivided into parcels and made available for shellfish aquaculture leasing”. Identifying and designating certain areas for locating shellfish leases would be a good first step in helping the Division streamline the lease application process. The bill would also create an administrative remedy for shellfish lease appeals by creating a three-member Shellfish Cultivation Lease Review Committee to hear appeals of decisions on lease applications.

CCA NC will work with other stakeholders and House members to address these concerns before the bill moves forward in the House next week.

House Bill 1049, Support Sustainable Fisheries Communities, was introduced on May 31 by Rep. Michael Speciale as “an Act to restore the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on Seafood and Aquaculture, to reform the statutes governing appointments to the Marine Fisheries Commission, and to impose a moratorium on certain rule-making powers of the MFC pending a study of it’s structure and functioning”.

This type of legislative maneuver was fully expected given the attacks on the current MFC members and the Governor by the commercial fishing trade union during recent MFC meetings. The fact that after three decades the NCFA has now decided that the current Commission is “out of balance”, and is demanding that all nine commissioners should be forced to resign on June 30th and be replaced by a totally new commission of the NCFA’s liking, is quite frankly childish in its approach.

In addition to removing and replacing the current MFC commissioners and establishing a moratorium on the authority of the MFC to propose and adopt rules to carry out their duties, it also asks for the reinstatement of the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on Seafood and Aquaculture to effectively transfer the power to manage our state fisheries to the legislature with no mention of the effect this Oversight Commission will have on managing recreational fishing and the conservation of our public trust resources. This bill has been referred to the House Committee on Wildlife Resources.

House Bill 1063, Commercial Fishing License Reforms, was introduced on May 31 by Rep. Larry Yarborough with co-sponsors, Rep. Jimmy Dixon, Rep. Ted Davis, and Rep. Stephen Ross. This bill finally brings recommendations on the Standard Commercial Fishing License (SCFL) reform back to the legislature where it started with a stakeholder meeting on coastal fisheries issues held by Reps. Dixon and Davis almost three years ago.

HB 1063 uses the recommendations proposed by the MFC at their February meeting and adds recreational license reforms to include the elimination of the Recreational Commercial Gear License (RCGL) and proposes increases in various recreational license fees to bring them into line with the inland fishing license fees. The bill also proposes increases in the commercial fishing license fees to replace potential lost revenue from current license holders that may choose to give up their license under the new proposed landings and trip ticket requirements, or reclassify to the proposed Heritage license option.

Requiring minimum commercial effort thresholds of either, 1) landings of at least 1,000 pounds during the year, or 2) a minimum of 15 trip tickets for the year, is directed at the almost 60% of SCFL fishermen that do not report any landings on an annual basis. This minimum participation requirement is consistent with the accepted definition of a commercial fisherman as “using commercial fishing gear for the purpose of obtaining fish for sale”. This bill has also been referred to the House Committee on Wildlife Resources.

At this point, no meetings of the Wildlife Resources Committee have been held or scheduled. We will continue to monitor the calendar and stay in touch with the Committee Chairmen for further discussion on these bills. We will keep our membership apprised on any necessary Calls to Action by pro-resource supporters.

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