Tom Campbell: Time to fish or cut bait

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Those of us who live in or regularly spend time along North Carolina’s coast recognize there are five drivers attracting and contributing to the region: tourism, the military, farming, forestry and fishing. A big battle is being waged over our waters, specifically about fishing regulations.


The war has been going on for years but just recently the volume has amplified. The combatants include commercial fishermen, recreational anglers and state regulators and the fighting threatens to further divide our state.


One point on which most agree is that over the past twenty years or so our seafood stocks have become depleted to the point current inventories aren’t sufficient to annually replenish many species.


David Sneed, head of The Coastal Conservation Association, a group representing recreational fishermen, said, “Those twenty years of overfishing I’m referring to, the commercial industry was taking 70 to 80 percent of the harvest. They are the reason that we are in this boat today. They are the ones that have made the biggest impact on the stock.” His group has been suing the state since 2020 to hold it more accountable, saying state regulators and politicians have allowed commercial fishing interests to dominate regulatory policies, because commercial interests have made significant campaign contributions to political candidates.


Some years ago, I wrote a column, complaining about the over-fishing problem. A commercial fisherman didn’t like my piece and called the local paper, telling the publisher that if she ever published another one of my columns, his firm would withhold any future support of the paper. The publisher called apologetically, but said she needed their financial support and would comply with the request.


In late February of this year, the Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) met in New Bern and, after a lengthy and contentious discussion, agreed on plans for shrimp and flounder management. Earlier this month a group of about 30 protestors gathered outside the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries in Morehead City to complain about the new policies. One protestor complained that the state won’t allow him to keep the flounder he catches, yet he can go into most any seafood market and buy one. It’s not right, he says.


The new flounder management plan would limit those with a recreational license to catch one founder per person per day. They adopted a 70-30 rule, saying between now and 2024 commercial fishing can take 70 percent of the harvest while limiting recreational interests to 30 percent. They further recommend a 50-50 split beginning in 2026. Additionally, shrimpers would not be allowed to trawl in designated crab sanctuaries. When commercial fishermen loudly opposed the plan, the commission softened it to include fewer areas than first proposed.


Commercial fishermen are a valued industry in our state, putting seafood on our tables. Their payrolls are essential to coastal economies and they should be able to earn a living at their trade. But that doesn’t mean they can fish as much as they want, whenever they want using whatever means they want. Equally valuable is the contribution of recreational fishermen, who generate tourism dollars including renting motels and cottages, shopping at tackle shops, hiring fishing guides, buying from marine suppliers and other retailers. They are important to our heritage and way of life.


There should be room for both commercial and recreational interests to co-exist in a fair environment. To ensure fairness with limited resources will require our regulators and lawmakers to have the wisdom of the biblical King Solomon, who had to discern between two women claiming to be the mother of a baby.


Here’s my spin: Using another water metaphor, if the bottom of the boat has a hole in it there is no matter where you sit. In other words, trying to place fault or blame doesn’t help with a solution. Other coastal states have not encountered the decades-long battles ours has. Let’s study of how they navigate these waters. Next, we need to re-examine our entire regulatory process, beginning with our regulatory structure, how we make these important decisions and who needs to be at the table when they are made. We need to establish a regulatory process with decision makers that includes commercial fishermen and recreational anglers, as well other interests like guides, restaurants and seafood retailers. Maybe even environmentalists.


It’s time for North Carolina to stop fighting and fish or cut bait. And the sooner the better.


Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 ½ years. Contact him at