RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's coastal fishing regulator unanimously rejected a proposal Thursday that would have banned shrimp boats from trawling in the region's rivers and sounds and forced them into the open ocean to catch the crustaceans.
The Marine Fisheries Commission voted 9-0 to scrap a petition seeking rules declaring most internal coastal waters as seafood nursery areas off limits to trawlers.
Supporters of the ban blame shrimpers' massive nets for collecting and killing millions of fish in the inshore waters where juvenile sea creatures grow up. Only the New Bern man proposing the plan spoke on its behalf during the four-hour hearing.
"If (timber company) Weyerhaeuser was killing that much, or the hog industry, or the poultry industry, the outcry would be deafening. The state's citizens would be up in arms," said Tim Hergenrader.
Dozens of opponents warned that forcing shrimpers into the ocean would slash their income and could cost thousands of jobs in coastal communities with some of the state's highest unemployment rates.
"I just find it sad in today's economy that so many of us, including myself, feel like we have to get up every day and fight for our legal right to work and provide for our families," said Bill Hooper, a commercial fisherman from Beaufort.
Hergenrader had no scientific evidence that banning trawlers from the sounds and coastal rivers would have a big impact in protecting fish populations, whether other fish species would suffer if the ships and their 26-foot nets skimmed the ocean, and whether the trade-off in jobs was worth the new rule, Division of Marine Fisheries Director Louis Daniel said.
"Is it worth it? No, in my opinion it's not. Not for the economy, the social aspects," Daniel said. Instead, the commission should wait for his staff to complete a new shrimp management plan in progress that aims to reduce bycatch.
Boat owners, seafood middle-men, restaurant operators, retirees and researchers piled into a bus from New Bern to speak against the proposed ban. Some blamed growing bird populations for cutting into fish stocks. They argued that young shrimp tend to move south out of the state's waters, or explained that unwanted fish killed after being caught up in nets tend to be dumped overboard where other sea creatures feed. Others noted that the proposal comes as consumers increasingly want fresh and local food, including seafood.
"They do not want to consume farm-raised seafood or seafood products that have been imported from the other side of the world," said Alison Willis of Harkers Island. She said she runs a seafood market that supplies stores and restaurants as far away as Boone and her husband is a fourth-generation commercial fisherman.
Ron Ruffer blames the trawlers for mowing down grasses on the sound bottom that shelter fish and churning up silt for making the sounds less fruitful for sport fishermen like himself than the Chesapeake Bay.
"The number of species, the quality of the species in the Pamlico Sound doesn't compare. When you consider that, you have to ask yourself, is it because they've outlawed trawling in those bodies of water?" said Ruffer, who shuttles between homes in Oriental and new Reading, Pa.
The most recent annual report on seafood and other fish stocks by the state Division of Marine Fisheries said shrimp populations are viable and that "natural mortality far outweighs fishing."
Shrimpers are catching less and earning less for the state's No. 2 seafood species after blue crab, according to data by the state Division of Marine Fisheries. Commercial fishermen caught nearly 10 million pounds of shrimp in 2002. In 2008, it dropped to 9.4 million pounds, valued at $19.2 million. Last year, commercial shrimpers landed 6.1 million pounds worth $13.3 million, the division reported.
The report also marks commercial fishing overall as declining. The industry's overall value excluding vessels was $71.2 million in 2011 and employed about 5,100, the report said. A decade earlier the industry generated $88 million and employed 7,800.