NEW BERN – Though the turnout was low, emotions ran high.
About 20 people showed up Thursday night for a public meeting intended to find out what people think about reorganizing the two state agencies that manage fish and wildlife populations. Other meetings were held over the past two weeks in Raleigh and Manteo. It’s all part of a study mandated in a bill passed last session by the N.C. General Assembly.
Legislative leaders say they want to save money, and merging the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission is one possibility they will consider. The division manages all commercial and recreational fisheries in the coastal waters, while the commission regulates freshwater fish and administers hunting, trapping and boating laws.
“That’s a bad, bad idea,” Ron McPherson, a charter boat captain in Atlantic Beach, told agency representatives at the meeting. “The merger won’t save anyone a dime.”
“I say no, no, no,” Bertie Potter, who owns a fish house in Hobucken, said rather emphatically. “Commercial fishermen are hurting and this is our livelihood.”
“This will be the end of commercial fishing,” said Sandra Gaskill, a commercial fisherwoman from Stacy in Carteret County.
Other comments followed the same the drift. None of the five speakers had anything good to say about the merger idea.
Neither did the Marine Fisheries Commission, an appointed body that sets saltwater fishing regulations and policies. It voted 8-1 last week to oppose any merger. The lone dissenter doesn’t want to see the agencies combined but supports moving marine fisheries intact to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said Rob Bizzell, the commission’s chairman.
“The other eight commissioners, including myself, can’t see how either the resource or our state will be better served by changing our agency’s assignment,” Bizell said in the Carteret County News-Times. “We have the scientists in place, the enforcement in place and there’s a cost involved in restructuring that would be hard to justify.”
A marine fisheries division has a long history as a separate agency of state government. The division can trace its roots back to 1822, when the legislature imposed gear restrictions on oyster harvests. That was later followed by separate fish and shellfish commissions, which were combined in 1915 to form a commercial regulatory body. In 1965, the scope of the commission was expanded to include regulatory authority over recreational fishing activities in coastal waters.
The division now does a lot more, including inspecting fish houses. Louis Daniel, the division’s director, warned earlier this year against shifting that responsibility. There are more than 700 fish dealers in the state, he said, and keeping track of the catch means constant contact with them.
“We have a tremendous amount of interactions with fish dealers,” he said at a commission meeting in June.
Information from the dealers, he said, is the state’s main method of managing fish quotas, which is essential to complying with Atlantic fisheries regulations and quotas.
“It has the potential to have extraordinary consequences to our industry,” he said.
Gaskill and Pam Morris, a commercial fisherwoman from Harkers Island fear that a merger would destroy the industry.
“We’ll get the shaft,” Gaskill said after Thursday’s meeting. “The reason for all of this is to get the commercial fisherman out of the water. They don’t want us in the creeks; they don’t want us in the rivers; they don’t want us in the sounds.”
Commercial fisherman, Morris said, view the potential merger with great suspicion. The idea is being driven by inland legislators, who have no particular knowledge of the industry or empathy with those who work in it, she said. They are more sympathetic to recreational fishermen, Morris said and more comfortable with the Wildlife Resources Commission.
“This is all being done under the guise of saving a dollar, but that’s not what this is all about,” she said.
Many recreational fishing groups have for years lobbied the state to follow the lead of other Southern states and ban gill nets, a common type of commercial fishing gear, from inshore waters, Gaskill noted.
“They want the nets out of the water,” Gaskill added. “That means, we’ll be out of the water, too.”
The fisheries division and the wildlife commission must submit their report to the legislature by Oct. 1.
Today is the deadline for public comments on the reorganization. Submit comments online or mail them to S821 Comments, 1701 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1701.