by Jerry Schill, June 22, 2019
While the NC House has been aggressive in its protection for the interests of big hospitals and physicians and other healthcare workers, it has done just the opposite for North Carolina’s commercial fisherman. This week, it passed a bill (HB-483, “Let Them Spawn”) to further frustrate and burden their livelihoods, and by extension, to affect the quality of seafood available in our eastern NC restaurants and on our family’s dinner table.
The following summary was provided by Mr. Jerry Schill, explaining what the NC House did this past week regarding HB-483:
What a week it was at the General Assembly in Raleigh as the House debated H-483, a bill titled LET THEM SPAWN.
It began on Tuesday in the House Rules Committee where the bill received a favorable report and quickly moved to the floor of House the next day, where it passed 58-54. An objection was made to the third and final reading of the bill, which put it on the calendar for Thursday. It passed third reading 58-47 and sent to the Senate where its future is uncertain.
The extremes range from the advocates of the bill saying it’s vitally needed because all fish stocks are near collapse in North Carolina to opponents saying it will be the end of commercial fishing and recreational fishermen will be severely harmed as well. Rather than get into that, I’ll just simply say this: it’s a really bad bill. Why do I say that?
Rather than getting into the weeds about what it will do or won’t do, I asked the legislators the following question: Do you really want to manage fisheries from this body? The Fisheries Reform Act was passed in 1997 after months of studies and extensive debate with stakeholders. It was a compromise document with most participants grudgingly accepting the outcome. I was present at the signing ceremony at the State Capitol Building and still have the pen presented to me by Governor Jim Hunt.
The FRA set up a process that included a 9 member Marine Fisheries Commission all appointed by the Governor to set policy, and the bureaucratic arm, the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) to carry it out. DMF was under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) but that name was changed to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The taxpayers fund the folks to manage fisheries, and the MFC and DMF are charged under the Fisheries Reform Act to adopt Fishery Management Plans for each species. Those plans are to be reviewed and amended as needed.
So what is the problem with these controversies going to the General Assembly? When one side has the money and resources to lobby their cause and the other does not, you end up with a bill like HB-483 passing regardless of the facts. The proponent’s main talking point was a graph using commercial landings comparing 1997 to 2017. Looking at landings solely as a barometer for the health of fish stocks is just horribly inaccurate.
Those that say our fish stocks are all headed toward collapse are just not correct. But neither are those that say everything is just fine. The problem is, in debates like this in the General Assembly, the truth really is not part of the discussions, which is why NCFA’s argument has been that they really don’t even need to be considering such legislation. Use the process already in place. Use the process that taxpayers are already paying for.
The political dynamics of HB-483 moving through the House is fascinating. The House Republicans discussed the bill in caucus several weeks ago and I was told by several legislators there wasn’t any appetite for the caucus to move it. In other words, we thought it was dead. But the main sponsor Rep. Larry Yarborough was relentless and along with lobbyists from the North Carolina Wildlife Federation (NCWF) and to a lesser degree the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), they worked hard to convince House Republicans to get the bill heard. They did run into a problem with the “crossover deadline” which is a date where any bill without a monetary component must pass either the House or Senate by that date or it’s dead. Well, the deadline had passed and the bill had no monetary component. However, at the Tuesday Rules Committee meeting a substitute bill was approved that included a provision for $10,000 of spending that made the bill eligible after the deadline.
How did we with the North Carolina Fisheries Association (NCFA) come to the point of opposing HB-483? At the NCFA, we have biologists that we rely on for advice. After review, we were told it was a bad bill and several bullet points were listed as to why. Only then did we come up with a position to oppose the bill. Even if the bill would have been fine on its merits, I would have argued with our Board that we shouldn’t support because of the points I’ve made previously. When we already have a process and then advocate micro managing by going to the General Assembly, we’re only asking for trouble.
Some folks are only concerned about the bottom line or whether the bill was approved or not. I’m interested in the dynamics that lead to the vote. In my 32 years I’ve never seen such a geographical divide as all of the coastal folks that spoke were united in their opposition. Just two years ago a freshman legislator from the western part of the state told me he would be guided by the coastal legislators on fishing issues. This week he voted against them.
The professionals at DMF that taxpayers pay to manage fisheries, had serious reservations about the bill at first and then came out at the committee meeting and opposed it. DEQ, their parent agency, opposed it. Keep in mind that DEQ & DMF are under Governor Roy Cooper, yet more Democrats voted in favor of the bill than Republicans!
The bill is now in the Senate. Assume nothing, and let the Senators know your thoughts. CALL or EMAIL THEM ASAP !! It is a matter of UTMOST URGENCY !!
**** Jerry Schill is the Executive Director of the North Carolina Fisheries Association