Commercial Fishermen's Image Problem
North Carolina's commercial fishermen have an image problem. You wouldn't know it from the rhetoric coming from one of the primary groups that represent them, the North Carolina Fisheries Association.
But since last winter, all up and down the East Coast, recreational fishermen have been bad-mouthing this state's commercial fishermen.
The reason: photos and video footage showing long plumes of dead striped bass, some of them over 30 pounds, left in the wake of ocean trawlers.
One trawler captain said that he simply caught more stripers than he could bring aboard or legally keep; recreational fishermen blamed commercial fishermen who, while restricted to 50 fish a day, wanted to capitalize on bringing the biggest fish to market. The recreational fishermen who took the photos say they numbered into the thousands; the state Division of Marine Fisheries say the number was in the hundreds.
Who is actually right doesn't really matter.
The waste led to outrage as far north as Massachusetts. State officials were inundated with angry emails.
The widespread criticism was because these fish - even if you look at them only as a resource to be utilized by us humans - aren't "ours." They winter off the North Carolina coast, but migrate north to Delaware Bay and elsewhere in the summer.
A recreational fishing industry in states north of here is every bit as dependent on the stripers as the commercial fishing industry in North Carolina.
The state Marine Fisheries Commission and the staff at the Division of Marine Fisheries have been trying to come to grips with what they know is a serious problem, one that could subject them to litigation.
This week, they'll consider various proposals that involve allowing some or all of the trawler portion of the commercial quota of stripers to be caught with hook-and-line, something already allowed for other commercially caught species of fish.
The idea isn't to take away the commercial fishery. It's to allow it without so much waste.
Commercial fishermen and their representatives at the N.C. Fisheries Association appear content to keep whistling by the proverbial graveyard. The association opposes any and all changes.
Sean McKeon, the group's president, wrote to the commission that the controversy was largely the result of "distorted images" and blog sites. As his group has done so often in the past, he attempted to turn the issue into one of commercial-versus-recreational fishermen, saying the commission should focus on striper mortality from catch-and-release fishing by recreational anglers.
This myopic, take-no-prisoners representation of commercial fishermen does them no favors. As I've written here before, long-term economics are against commercial fishermen.
The economic value of the commercial fishing industry is stagnant or declining. The economic value of the recreational fishing industry has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few decades.
Political power follows the dollar.
If commercial fishermen in North Carolina don't wake up to this reality, they'll eventually be buried by it.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at email@example.com.
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