19 Feb Observations from the MFC Meeting
By David Sneed, CCA NC Executive Director
The NC Marine Fisheries Commission (Commission) met for two days last week in Wrightsville Beach. In a bit of foreshadowing, Director Steve Murphey, in his opening remarks at his first MFC meeting as the Director of the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), offered this quote from Barry Goldwater: “You don’t have to be disagreeable to disagree.” Unfortunately not many people took his message to heart.
It was obvious from the tone of the written comments through the public comment period that the NC Fisheries Association (NCFA) did not come to this meeting with even the slightest intent to support the Commission in their role as stewards of our state’s public trust coastal resources. After inciting commercial fishermen to write letters and attend the meeting in loud opposition to any consideration of reforming commercial fishing license eligibility, Jerry Schill and Glenn Skinner both used their public comment time to attack the sitting commissioners and accuse them of bias against the commercial fishing industry. This included the two new commissioners, Scientist Pete Kornegay and Recreational Industry Representative Cameron Boltes, before they even had a chance to sit through their first Commission meeting. Simply because they were not hand-picked by the NCFA? Schill cited his own unscientific analysis of the history of Commissions since FRA 97 to claim this Commission “out of balance” and call for all of the commissioners to resign. Skinner accused the commissioners of putting their own personal agendas ahead of the needs of commercial fishermen, and also called on them all to resign. You can expect Jerry Schill to go to the General Assembly this spring to once again ask for legislation changing the make up and powers of the Commission. This will be the height of hypocrisy given the opposition to House Bill 867 from the NCFA last year. HB 867 proposed updating the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997, however NCFA opposed any changes stating very loudly that FRA 97 “was working just fine”.
So there was no public discussion on the proposed changes to the commercial fishing license eligibility, only loud opposition to ANY changes and more unsubstantiated claims of a covert effort by CCA to end commercial fishing from a room packed with part-time commercial fishermen and seafood dealers. The attacks on the Commission included a particularly embarrassing attempt by Dare County Commissioner Steve House to disrupt the proceedings. There was no civil discourse on what impact the 3500 commercial fishing license holders that are not reporting any landings are having on our dwindling fish stocks, but there were plenty of personal attacks on the Commission members.
The Commission did put forth a list of recommendations on changes to the commercial fishing license eligibility at the request of some General Assembly members. These recommendations would require statutory changes and could be considered by Legislators during the 2018 short session. The motion passed 5-4 with At-Large Commissioner Koury voting against the motion with the three commercial commissioners. So much for an unbalanced Commission.
The complete unwillingness of Jerry Schill, Glenn Skinner and the NCFA to engage in any meaningful efforts to conserve our state’s coastal resources is extremely disturbing particularly in light of the presentation on Thursday of the current Southern flounder stock assessment. The preliminary data indicates that the probability the 2015 stock is overfished is 100% and the probability that the 2015 stock is experiencing overfishing is 53%. This follows the 2005, 2009, and 2014 Southern flounder stock assessments that all indicated the stock was overfished and overfishing was occurring.
Commission Scientist Pete Kornegay commented that the report on Southern flounder was as bad as it gets, and tried to join with Commissioner Laughridge to ask the Director to use his Proclamation authority to invoke emergency measures to save the fishery from potential collapse. The Director stated that he would not use his Proclamation authority, so the motion was withdrawn. Murphey preferred the completion of the FMP Amendment process and laid out a timeline where new management measures for Southern flounder would not be presented to the Commission until the February 2019 meeting.
At the request of local fishing guide Captain Jot Owens, the Commission put forth a motion to ask the Division to draft rules to make tarpon a no spear, no gaff and no possession fish. The intent is to protect an important recreational fishery that currently has no commercial harvest or commercial value. The Commission voted to pass this purely conservation measure 6-0 with the three commercial commissioner all abstaining.
In one final attack on the sitting commissioners, Commissioner Rose submitted a motion provided to her by the NCFA that the Commission send a request to Governor Cooper asking that he examine the current membership, and if need be, make changes to insure this commission functions as intended. Commissioners Boltes and Gorges saw through this purely political attempt to further impugn the integrity of the Commission and voted with the three commercial commissioners to support the request. The motion passed 5-4 in further deference to Schill’s unbalanced commission.
So at the end of the day, another battle for the survival of North Carolina’s fishing economy is looming with the completion of the Southern flounder stock assessment and FMP Amendment. Will the NCFA find another way to disregard the scientific data showing a fishery on the verge of collapse, or will they finally come to the table to work for a healthy future for our fishing economy? I suspect that if the attacks on the Commission, and the deflection of blame onto CCA that was orchestrated over a debate on the eligibility of commercial fishermen is any indication, then we already know what the answer from Jerry Schill will be. The continued strategy to use CCA as a diversion from the real issues will either be the downfall of the NCFA or the collapse of our total fishing economy. States like Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, where CCA has successfully advocated for progressive fisheries management, all enjoy over $1 billion commercial fishing industries while North Carolina’s commercial fishing industry languishes at around $400 million. Our total fishing economy in North Carolina could be so much greater if the NCFA would stop the political attacks and the perpetuation of misleading conspiracy theories, and provide constructive input. You don’t have to be disagreeable to disagree. You just have to be sincere in your support of a better future for fishermen.