Jimmy Phillips estimates 100,000 pounds or more of shrimp comes through the family seafood market in a season; all of it fresh from North Carolina waters.
“I don’t sell imported shrimp; we only do local,” Phillips said as he manned the front counter at Clyde Phillips Seafood Market in Swansboro.
Fresh shrimp straight from Pamlico Sound was ready for purchase Friday but Phillips is concerned there could be a change on the way that will hurt the seafood industry, from the commercial fishermen down to the consumers who want fresh local shrimp and seafood when they walk through the market door.
“Yeah, it worries me,” Phillips said when asked about a petition for rulemaking before the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission that would put severe restrictions on shrimping in North Carolina.
The petition filed by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation with the Southern Environmental Law Center calls for stricter regulations for shrimp trawling and the shrimp season as a means to better protect habitat for juvenile finfish.
Specifically, the petition as the commission to designate all coastal fishing waters not otherwise designated as nursery areas to be named special secondary nursery areas, including the ocean out to three miles. It also calls for establishing clear criteria for the opening of shrimp season and defining the type of gear and how and when gear may be used in special secondary nursery areas during shrimp season.
Phillips said most of their shrimp comes out of Pamlico Sound and if all of those waters become nursery areas, fishing would be closed or greatly cut back.
Phillips said June to November is prime time for shrimping in Pamlico Sound. If approved, the petition would limit opening of the season until after Aug. 16 and also limit the number of fishing days when waters are open.
But converting all waters to SSA designation could impact more than just shrimping, Phillips said, with other fisheries potentially impacted as well.
“It would affect shrimping tremendously, net fishing, and everybody,” Phillips said.
The shrimp fishery is second only to blue crab fishery in North Carolina and almost all of the shrimp sold in North Carolina is harvested by trawl.
If it’s not economically feasible to shrimp due to restrictions, fishermen may choose to go elsewhere to trawl and not go at all.
Phillips said it’s an issue that begins with the fisherman but trickles down to many others. If the fishermen aren’t harvesting shrimp, local catch is not making it to the seafood dealers and markets and it then doesn’t make it to the restaurants and dinner tables of area residents.
“It would have a tremendous impact,” Phillips said.
Phillips is just one of many fishermen, seafood industry representatives, and concerned consumers who plan to attend a Tuesday public meeting in New Bern to express their opposition to the petition.
The meeting begins at 12:30 p.m. at the Riverfront Convention Center.
Jerry Schill, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, a nonprofit trade association representing the interests of commercial fishermen, seafood dealers and processors, said the petition for rulemaking is “not only a referendum on shrimping but a referendum on the future of commercial fishing.”
Schill said approval of the proposed rules would bring an immediate reduction in the harvest of shrimp with a long-term impact.
“Long-term economically a lot of these guys will not be able to afford to rig up and go out shrimping,” Schill said.
The proposed rules would close much of the summer season and when waters are open, the number of fishing days in special secondary nursery areas would be reduced. Under a modification to the petition, trawling would be restricted to three days a week in internal waters but four days a week in the Atlantic Ocean.
Schill said the hit to working fishermen will gradually impact others in the fishery and long term could mean losses for the seafood industry overall.
“Pretty soon you lose your power infrastructure and there’s no shrimp industry,” Schill said.
The NCFA is encouraging fishermen and anyone concerned about the potential impact to the shrimp fishery and access to local seafood to attend the meet.
Come in person to speak and commercial fishermen are encouraged to anchor their boats at Union Point.
NCFA will hold a meeting and prayer service at 11 a.m. upstairs at the convention center to gather before the public meeting and comment period begins.
Nancy Edens of Sneads Ferry, a North Carolina representative with the Southern Shrimp Alliance, said she did an informal count of boats and crew members and estimates that 175 families or more in the Sneads Ferry area would be impacted by the proposed restrictions.
“It would put a hardship on a lot of people,” said Edens, whose own family has been involved in commercial fishing for generations.
Edens said if the fishermen can’t shrimp they’ll try to find something else to do in the New River, such as shellfishing and clamming, but it would be hard to make up for the loss of shrimping.
Bigger boats could go to other states to shrimp but would have to stay in other places long term rather than coming home after trips. If they stay in other states, that’s where they are buying gas, groceries and other supplies.
“If they do that, they are not spending money here,” Edens said.
They are also not bringing in local seafood.
There have been more than 3,300 signatures on a change.org Save Our Local Seafood petition in opposition to the request from the Wildlife Federation.
Jess Hawkins, vice president of NC Catch and a former marine biologist, said the NC Catch is concerned about the impact the proposed restrictions could have on the access of local seafood by consumers.
“We think the consumer will be impacted and that the restrictions could cut down on their access (to local shrimp) in terms of restaurants and in terms of availability at market,” Hawkins said.
NC Catch also believes the current regulatory process is the appropriate way to deal with such matters and not via a petition for rulemaking.
NC Catch works in partnership with local Catch groups to help strengthen the state seafood industry through promotion and marketing.
“Our interest is in maintaining a sustainable, good supply of North Carolina seafood,” said interim director Ann Simpson. “The fisheries regulatory process is set up to protect the resources we have in North Carolina.”
The Wildlife Federation argues otherwise and says more needs to be done to protect the habitat in nursery areas for juvenile finfish.
According to the petition, substantial fishing effort occurs in North Carolina’s nursery areas, which are essential to the development of juvenile finfish such as Atlantic croaker, spot and weakfish. It is estimated that for every pound of shrimp harvested in North Carolina waters, over four pounds of non-targeted catch, known as bycatch, is discarded.
“The amount of finfish bycatch in the North Carolina shrimp trawl fishery is unsustainably high, and the negative impact of shrimp trawl bycatch is felt coast wide,” the petition reads. “North Carolina is the only state on the east coast to allow shrimp trawling in its sounds and estuaries. Rather than propose an outright ban on shrimp trawling in North Carolina waters, this petition proposes a balanced approach of defining the type of gear and managing fishing in areas that are essential for juvenile finfish development.”
Hawkins warns against comparing North Carolina to other states as it has a unique ecosystem with the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound and is one of the few water bodies that supports commercial quantities of brown, pink and white shrimp in the south Atlantic.
He also notes North Carolina has been a leader in protecting fish habitat and reducing bycatch.
About 48 percent of the state’s inland coastal waters are closed to trawling, whether by the fact that they are designated nursery areas, unsuitable for fishing or areas restricted by military. In areas where fishing is allowed, steps are taken to reduce bycatch.
North Carolina was the first state to require finfish excluders in shrimp trawls and in 2016 was the first state to require two finfish excluders.
Phillips and Edens said there is added frustration knowing that the petition comes as the state is working to further reduce bycatch through gear improvements.
The Marine Fisheries Commission formed a workgroup in 2015 to investigate ways to further reduce bycatch in shrimp trawls, with a goal of reducing finfish bycatch by an additional 40 percent.
The workgroup met recently to discuss the latest results of gear testing and has seen bycatch reductions of nearly 55 percent without a significant loss of intended catch, said Hawkins, who attended the meeting.
Phillips said there don’t need to be further restrictions when progress is being shown in efforts to reduce bycatch beyond what is already being done.
“They are testing different gears now and it works,” Phillips said.
Edens said the fishermen don’t want to destroy the resource they rely on as a livelihood.
“We’re already doing everything possible to protect the fishery,” she said.
The five advisory committees to the Marine Fisheries Commission will meet jointly to take comment from the public on the petition for rulemaking and make a recommendation to deny or approve the petition. The MFC will make a final decision at it February meeting.