The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries is fielding attacks from two recreational fishing groups, alleging the agency exhibits “abject failure in properly managing the state’s coastal fisheries resources.”

The lawsuits have been filed by the North Carolina Coastal Fisheries Reform Group (NCCFRG) and most recently, by the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina (CCA).

Both actions take aim at the state’s “public-trust responsibilities to manage coastal fish stocks in a way that protects the public-trust rights of the public.”

According to Glenn Skinner, executive director of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, these attacks on the state’s fisheries agencies and the commercial industry are nothing new, but he has noted a change.

“While none of this is surprising, the number of attacks has definitely increased,” says Skinner. “There seems to be an effort to ‘go for the throat’ lately on multiple fronts. Attacks such as these mirror a lot of what’s gone on in other states, especially regarding the CCA.”

The Coast Fisheries Reform Group dropped its initial lawsuit claiming without evidence that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Marine Fisheries violated the federal Clean Water Act in its management of shrimp trawling in North Carolina. But the group has now turned attention to individual trawling companies: Capt. Gaston, LLC.; Esther Joy, Inc.; Hobo Seafood, Inc.; Lady Samaria, Inc.; Trawler Capt. Alfred, Inc.; and Trawlers Garland and Jeff, Inc.

“The Division of Marine Fisheries vigorously protects the resources of this state and its fisheries,” said DEQ Secretary Michael S. Regan. “This dismissal confirms our view from the outset that the claims in this lawsuit were without legal merit and detract from the meaningful efforts of diverse stakeholders working together to ensure we protect our resources for current and future generations.”

The shrimp trawl fishery in North Carolina is overseen under a Shrimp Fishery Management Plan, adopted by the state Marine Fisheries Commission, which is the rulemaking body for estuarine and marine fisheries management. The Division of Marine Fisheries implements and enforces the measures approved by the commission.

The agency said in its announcement the fishery management plan process is an “open and inclusive process through which those who wish to see changes in fisheries management can advocate for those changes.”

The Coastal Fisheries Reform Group’s attorney Jim Conner says the dismissal was “purely because of a technicality.”

“We did the dismissal because they (state officials) filed a brief saying they’re protected from lawsuits like these by sovereign immunity,” says Conner. Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine shielding federal and state governments from certain civil suits. “After a round of consultation, we decided to focus on the trawling companies.”

But according to the Division of Marine Fisheries announcement, the voluntary dismissal came as the state was awaiting a ruling on its motion to dismiss based on mainly on insufficient evidence:

“The state moved to dismiss the suit on several grounds including, most importantly, that the NCCFRG failed to state sufficient facts to support a claim that the division had violated the Clean Water Act.”

The Coastal Conservation Association complaint also takes direct aim at state fisheries, stating that “the root cause of the demise of those stocks is the State’s mismanagement of its coastal fisheries resources.”

“Unfortunately there is nothing new in either of these suits,” says Skinner of the commercial fisheries association. “It is simply more unfounded attacks on our state’s fishing families.”

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Maureen Donald is a freelance correspondent for National Fisherman.

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