PAMLICO COUNTY, N.C. (WNCT) — The commercial fishing industry is a lifeline for many coastal communities in North Carolina.
According to a study from NC State University, the fishing industry provides nearly $300 million to the state’s economy and employs more than 5,000 people.
However, many commercial fishermen feel like they’ve been playing defense for a decade, fighting for their livelihood.
“It’s a hard day to fight when you get up and you know you’re fighting for your survival every day, and you’re regulated to the point where you can barely make it,” said Doug Cross.
Cross runs Pamlico Packing Company with his brother. He grew up around the docks in Vandemere and started helping out at the family business when he was 13.
“I’ve seen years where the boats were a liability, and I’ve seen years where the boats were a blessing,” said Cross.
The storms and bad seasons come with the territory, but there’s another issue tangling these nets.
“Regulation is the single biggest wild card,” said Cross. “How do you plan in the future without knowing what you’re going to be facing.”
From size limits to seasons, commercial fishermen operate under a long list of rules.
Cross says the most concerning regulation is the quota system.
Harvesting quotas for certain species of fish are determined by just how many there are available.
“They want all the fish for themselves. It’s that simple,” said Cross.
Cross believes the amount recreational fishermen are allowed to catch of some species seems to keep growing, while the quota commercial fishermen are allowed keeps shrinking.
He also says it’s much easier for recreational fishermen to fish beyond the amount they’re supposed to, which leads to overfishing.
“I’ve seen regulation come along that absolutely eliminated fishery, to where people that were thriving, doing great business, in two or three years were completely put out of business,” said Cross.
North Carolina’s number of commercial fishing licenses is steadily declining, and it has been since 2001.
Last year, it sat at around 2,000 licenses.
The number of recreational fishermen in North Carolina is estimated at around one million.
People living in small fishing towns see the regulatory effects first-hand.
“It was quite the fishing town as you can see, even Pamlico County High School had a fishing program to help the younger people stay in school,” said Judy Thaanum.
Thaanum is the Mayor of Vandemere.
She remembers when 30 or 40 boats would set out from the docks in the town every day.
“Now, people have jobs in other places more so, there’s not as many involved in the fishing business,” said Thaanum.
The town still welcomes all fishermen, recreational and commercial.
Thaanum says the town is prepared to grow and evolve no matter what.
Her father started Pamlico Packing Company and sold it to Cross’s family in the 70’s.
She’s watched the industry change, while on thing stayed the same.
“My father used to say fishing is not just done in the water, it’s done in Washington D.C., it’s done in our legislature,” said Thaanum.
In 1997, North Carolina’s General Assembly passed the Fisheries Reform Act, establishing the Division of Marine Fisheries, and a way to regulate our waters.
“We analyze the data, collect the data and form recommendations that go forward to our Marine Fisheries Commission,” said Kathy Rawls, Director of Marine Fisheries.
The Division of Marine Fisheries sets the rules all fishermen operate by to keep fisheries healthy and full.
The tricky part is balancing two overlapping groups, people fishing commercially and recreationally.
“That is a tough line to walk, but the way we do it is we bring the data,” said Rawls.
Scientists and researchers in the division bring the data they collect to the Marine Fisheries Commission.
The Marine Fisheries Commission has the final say about what guidance goes in to effect.
The commission is made up of people representing all sides of the fishing industry, appointed by the Governor.
Cross is one of the people appointed to represent commercial fishermen.
Some conservation groups don’t think the division is doing enough.
“Management is the whole backdrop to this, if you don’t have proper management you’re not going to go anywhere,” said Joe Albea.
Albea is the spokesperson for the North Carolina Coastal Fisheries Reform Group.
He grew up on North Carolina’s waters, too.
He says major fish populations are declining right before his eyes.
Of the 14 species the division watches, three are overfished while one is considered depleted.
“We’re saying let’s stop the bleeding, let’s make the changes we know we can to make it a better fishery for everybody,” said Albea.
Along with better regulation of fisheries overall, the NCCFRG is also pushing to move large shrimp trawlers out to deeper waters and regulate gill nets.
The group is worried both of these practices catch and ultimately kill unintended sea life, shrinking the fish population.
“Our system is telling us we just can’t take it anymore, and this affects commercial fishermen’s livelihoods, and recreational fishermen’s enjoyment,” said Albea. “If you don’t have the fish out there you can’t make a living, and you can’t enjoy the resource.”
Albea says the NCCFRG would love to sit down with fishery stakeholders and talk about the shape the fisheries are in and how they can fix it.
For Cross, he doesn’t mind regulation, as long as he can see the data and science behind it.
He’ll do what it takes to keep his fisheries healthy, but he won’t lean in to what he calls radical agendas that only benefit certain fishermen.
“You’ll never see a commercial fisherman try to stop a recreational fisherman from trying to catch fish. Everybody wants to catch fish,” said Cross. “But, don’t try to stop a man from making a living in it through over-regulation or through biased regulation.”