CARTERET COUNTY | For the second time in recent years, entities representing commercial fishermen have taken to the courts to fight fisheries regulations.
The North Carolina Fisheries Association, a New Bern-based trade association representing commercial fishermen, announced that commercial fishermen have joined with several coastal counties in filing a legal complaint against the state over the process used in adopting new regulations for the southern flounder fishery.
The North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission adopted stricter management measures for the fishery in November as a supplement to the state’s Southern Flounder Management Plan.
While the practical effect of the lawsuit would stop the closure of recreational and commercial flounder fisheries to take effect this fall, the concern raised by the NCFA has been over the use of the supplement process rather than the amendment process, which is a longer, more-involved process that allows for greater public input.
“Filing a lawsuit is the last resort for us,” said Brent Fulcher, chairman of the NCFA board of directors, via a news release announcing the litigation. “We testified many times last year before the Marine Fisheries Commission that using the supplement is the wrong approach and should be managed by a full-blown amendment that allows full public participation. Our advice was totally ignored.”
In a June 2015 report by The Daily News, NCFA President Jerry Schill called the supplement process used “quick and dirty.”
Schill said at the time that the amendment process includes a review by a committee of various stakeholders who make recommendations to the MFC on a management strategy. The process can take a year or so but allows for more scrutiny.
Supporters of the new rules, many recreational fishermen, however, cited stock status reports and said the southern flounder fishery is depleted and action was needed.
It’s not the first time the NCFA has felt the need in recent years to take legal action over fishery regulations.
A year after it was filed in federal court, a judge dismissed in August 2015 a lawsuit alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act by several federal and state agencies involved in the protection of sea turtles.
In that suit, the NCFA and Carteret County Fisherman’s Association challenged a number of agencies for failing to take action to prevent the illegal take of endangered and threatened sea turtles in the recreational hook-and-line fishery.
Schill said the organization has felt there was no other option in either case.
“In my 29 years of involvement with these fisheries issues, this is only the second time that we filed litigation against the Division of Marine Fisheries,” Schill said in a statement. “Fishermen must have confidence in the process for management to be successful, but with the (Marine Fisheries) Commission and the Division (of Marine Fisheries) ignoring the law and even their own guidelines, we have no other option left.”
The latest complaint was filed Sept. 23 in Carteret County Superior Court.
A judge issued a temporary restraining order that put a hold on the newly adopted rules yet to take effect at least until the next hearing, which is expected to be the week of Oct. 10, Schill said.
Joining the NCFA as plaintiffs in the case are the Carteret County Fisherman’s Association, Inc. and the counties of Carteret, Dare and Hyde, according to the release.
Defendants include the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality, Director of the Division of Marine Fisheries and the members of the Marine Fisheries Commission. Stevenson Weeks, an attorney with Wheatly, Wheatly, Weeks, Lupton & Massie of Beaufort and Todd Roessler attorney with Kilpatrick, Townsend & Stockton of Raleigh, are representing the plaintiffs.