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NC Residents Sue, Arguing State Mismanages Coastal Fisheries

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Elon University student Caitlyn Bullock is one of the co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina for mismanagement of coastal marine resources. (Bert Owens)
Elon University student Caitlyn Bullock is one of the co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina for mismanagement of coastal marine resources. (Bert Owens)
December 3, 2020

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Residents from 29 counties who enjoy fishing have signed onto a civil-action lawsuit, arguing the state of North Carolina has failed to properly manage its coastal resources.

David Sneed, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, whose organization is spearheading the effort, said the lawsuit is based on the public-trust doctrine in the state's Constitution, which said the state's natural resources belong to all North Carolina residents.

He believes the state has failed to manage fish stocks in a way that benefits citizens.

"It's a 113-page document that uses a lot of the Division of Marine Fisheries' own data," Sneed explained. "And it shows that we've known for years that certain species have been overfished and we have laws on the books that say that those species are supposed to have a plan for ending overfishing within two years, and a plan for creating sustainable fisheries within ten years."

The complaint argued the state has infringed on the public's right to fish for personal use by allowing chronic overfishing of multiple fish stocks historically important to the public, and by facilitating commercial fishing practices and gears that cause staggering amounts of resource waste, as well as disregarding a lack of reporting of harvests by state commercial fishing license holders.

The lawsuit seeks a court-ordered permanent injunction to stop these practices.

Since the late 1980s, state data has indicated southern flounder stocks were overfished.

Sneed noted even after the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997 passed, which aimed to end overfishing and create sustainable fisheries, stocks have continued to decline, in some cases by 70% to 80%.

"And we're at the point where we're having to close fisheries to save them," Sneed observed. "There's already been a moratorium on river herring in North Carolina. For years, we've had to close the southern flounder fishery. So when you get to the point where you're having to close fisheries to save them, then we know we have a failure in management."

Tim Gestwicki, CEO of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, said neighboring states, including South Carolina and Georgia, have struck a balance between commercial interests and sustainability.

He contended North Carolina has dug itself into a hole that could leave future generations without coastal natural resources.

"It's no surprise these lawsuits are occurring, and it's not against any user group," Gestwicki reported. "The commercial fisherman aren't to blame. It's against the folks who are in charge of management - the Division of Marine Fisheries and the state - and it's occurred over the decades. And unfortunately, we're now at a point where the data is so dismal that it's almost a point of no return."

In a statement on its website, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries said it's dedicated to ensuring sustainable marine fisheries and habitats for the benefit and health of the people of North Carolina.

Disclosure: North Carolina Wildlife Federation contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Energy Policy, Environment, and Water. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC