Critics angered by vote
By a 5-4 vote on Feb. 15, the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) redefined the qualifications for a commercial fishing license with rules that did not include specific fishing income requirements, but did contain provisions that angered some critics.
Before the two-day MFC meeting in Wrightsville Beach on Feb. 14 and 15, much of the criticism was focused on a proposal that to qualify as a "commercial fisherman," an applicant must have 50% of all earned income from fishing and have three dozen trip tickets per year. Those lacking the required trip tickets would be required to submit proof of income for a commercial business of at least $10,000 per year per crew.
Critics said that on the Outer Banks, where many individuals cobble together several jobs to make ends meet, the income criteria would mean the loss of numerous licenses.
The proposal that was approved on Feb. 15 instead required that commercial fishing “license holders must demonstrate a minimal level of participation in the fishery as reported by landings (1,000 pounds of seafood products) or effort (15 trips) through the DMF trip ticket program during any two out of five continuous calendar years.”
The five yes votes came from Commissioners Cameron Boltes, Mark Gorges, James Kornegay, Chuck Laughridge and Rick Smith. The no votes were cast by Brad Koury, Janet Rose, Alison Willis and Sammy Corbett.
The new regulations did not appear to satisfy critics of the proposal, who indicated that it would still make it more difficult to obtain a commercial fishing license and adversely affect the industry.
Dare County Commissioner Steve House, who attended the MFC meeting, said that stakeholders were "disappointed but not surprised" by the outcome. "There's always hope," he said. "But we all know they make up their minds before they go into the meeting."
The Feb. 15 vote came the day after an intense public comment period at the MFC meeting where more than 200 stakeholders — almost all of them commercial fishermen — spoke against proposed changes in the criteria for qualifying for a state commercial fishing license.
The mood was tense and the tone was "stern," House told the Sentinel. He was one of those who spoke before a packed, standing-room-only ballroom in the Blockade Runner Hotel. "People spoke about how this proposal will affect them and providing for their families," House said. "They made it clear that they're fighting for their lives."
Other provisions approved by the MFC included the rules for: license transfers to families or corporations; creating a license for people to apprentice with commercial fishermen and then become eligible for a commercial license; issuing a Heritage Standard Commercial Fishing License; and facilitating the issuance of a license by completing a commercial fishing program at a community college.
Outer Banks Catch Board Chairman Sandy Semans Ross, who did not attend the MFC meeting but listened to it online, said she was struck by how the proposal that was ultimately voted on and approved had never been presented or discussed before the meeting.
"So all the public comment was about a different proposal," she said, adding that it was ironic since “next month is Sunshine Month when we talk about open and transparent government. There was no sunshine at this meeting."
Ultimately, the new rules will need to be approved by the N.C. General Assembly, which will likely become the next battleground over the issue.