NC Shrimp Trawling: To ban or not to ban?

Jatu Nugrohorukmi is a graduate student in Master of Coastal and Ocean Policy program with a bachelor degree in Marine Science. While working for Indonesia's government developed an interest in furthering expertise in environmental policy and coastal resource management. Upon returning to Indonesia, Jatu will work with decision-makers to help conserve and manage marine resources to assure sustainability.

Fishing is among the oldest means of livelihood in the world. It started with a simple fishing rod to feed the family. Eventually, the need grew to feed the entire nation, and we began to build fishing fleets. Fisheries have long been an important heritage, especially in coastal counties. However, there is also the dark side of it. Fisheries are a classic example of a common pool resource problem and the difficulty in managing equitable usage among a growing population threatens the sustainability of the resource.

State and national governments create rules so that there is enough fish for everyone. Often, specific interests find the rules unacceptable. Some say the regulations are too soft allowing people to catch more than they supposed to. Others think the rules only diminish their livelihood. These arguments have existed for decades and they are particularly salient in the recent debate about shrimp trawling in North Carolina.

This story begins with the declining number of landed stocks of economically important fish species in North Carolina. The fishery stock status in 2016 (below graph) shows several important species are of concern:  Atlantic croaker, spot, flounder, and blue crab, while the weakfish population is depleted. The decreasing number of fish catch is undoubtedly causing loss in economic revenue to the region.

Recently, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation proposed a petition to expand fish nursery areas, further restrict the use of specific types of gear and limit fishing days to reduce bycatch. The intent is to increase protection of the fisheries and improve the balance between the commercial and recreational interests. However, according to those that oppose the petition, expanding the nursery area is equivalent to banning the use of shrimp trawl because of all the gear restriction within nursery boundaries. That is to say, current efforts to protect fish nurseries implicitly makes shrimp trawling illegal. The petition has met fierce opposition by the commercial fishing interest.

An interesting part of this debate is that both sides support their arguments with scientific information.

Declining fish stocks can be attributed to many factors, but one that often draws heated debate is bycatch. Particular fishing gear, such as shrimp trawl, are remarkably "effective," that is, they manage to catch not only shrimp but also other kinds of fish. Researchers have studied the effect of bycatch since the 1960s and widespread concern rose at the end of the 1980s to a persistent level (see below Google Ngram). 

A three-year observation provides an estimation of the bycatch impact: over four pounds of non-target fish, such as Atlantic croaker, spot, and weakfish, captured for every pound of shrimp harvested in North Carolina alone. Another report, however, raises a concern of inaccurate bycatch estimates in Southeast shrimp trawl fishery due to the low observer coverage.

The ugly part of bycatch is that it often has to be discarded for various reasons, such as low quality or outlawed species for conservation purpose. Bycatch returned to the sea is often dead or dying and as a result, seen by many as wasteful and unethical. Moreover, it negatively impacts protected fish stocks. Some argue that fish dumping also has a positive side by providing food for another thriving species. There is also the installment of bycatch reduction device in the trawl net to alleviate this wastage.

Nevertheless, because of the varying results in quantity and composition of bycatch over time and space, the estimates of regional bycatch are often inconclusive. The effect of trawling on species' communities in the area is complicated, and therefore, could be different in another place.

The fisheries management plan is intended to ensure the sustainability of the State’s significant commercial and recreational fisheries resources. It contains management’s goals and objectives and status of the critical fish stock. The plan makes explicit demands for the use of sound science in decision making. However, fisheries science is often highly uncertain such as in the example of bycatch by North Carolina’s shrimp trawling. The regulation imposed by the policymakers face a difficult situation in trying to satisfy all the stakeholders involved.  the discomfort of the situation places unrealistic demands on science to resolve this historic and culturally significant debate. Ultimately, it is essential to ensure the viability of the natural resources in the future.

The question then becomes how can we compensate the commercial fishing people for the loss of their livelihood while also protecting their heritage?


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