As ‘Conservationists’ Celebrate Advancing Fishing Resources Lawsuit, NC Fisheries Association Laments ‘Tragedy of the Common Man’

MOREHEAD CITY – A lawsuit filed by a conservation group against the State of North Carolina aims to hold the State accountable “for mismanaging North Carolina’s coastal fisheries resources” is moving forward after a Court rejected the State’s motion to dismiss “in its entirety.” For members of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) of North Carolina, this represents “a decisive victory” for themselves and the group of 86 citizen plaintiffs.

For Glenn Skinner, Executive Director of the N.C. Fisheries Association, it represents somewhat more of a tragedy in the making. For the North Carolina fishing families, and for the ‘common man,’ the conservation forces behind this lawsuit, and others like it, are only of concerning of particular interests. Skinner wrote of this ‘Tragedy of the Common Man’ last year, a read that gives necessary context to the conservationists lawsuit victory:

“If you follow fisheries management at all, you’ve most likely heard the phrase “tragedy of the commons”. The concept originates from a 1968 article written by Garrett Hardin, which describes the problems that occur when individuals exploit a shared resource to the extent that demand overwhelms supply, and the resource becomes unavailable to some or all. Since 1968, the tragedy of the commons concept has been used as an argument for the conservation or privatization of almost every public trust resource, including our fisheries. Many believe that without the responsibility that comes with ownership, stakeholders utilizing a shared or “public trust resource” have no incentive to responsibly manage the resource for future generations.

            Here in North Carolina, this concept is often used to describe what some view as the mismanagement of our coastal fisheries. They claim that the State, by allowing commercial fishing to occur has limited their access and failed to manage our public trust fisheries for the benefit of all North Carolinians. While I agree that North Carolinas strategies for managing our coastal fisheries often fails to properly manage the resource for the future benefit of all stakeholders, their reasoning doesn’t hold water in my opinion.

As a commercial fisherman, I can tell you that demand for local seafood seldom if ever overwhelms the supply. Seafood dealers regularly limit their fishermen’s harvest of a particular species to avoid flooding the market and lowering prices. When supply exceeds demand, expenses exceed profits and fishermen are forced to target other species in order to keep their business afloat. That’s right, commercial fishing is a business – usually a small family business, and without a sustainable supply of fish, fishermen go out of business. Commercial fishermen fish for a living, not for fun. No one has more incentive to properly manage our fisheries than those who have invested their entire lives in the resource.

            More often than not, the groups making these claims represent a handful of recreational fishermen or “sportsmen” who make the moral argument that “fish are too valuable to be caught only once” (harvested). These groups constantly advocate for banning commercial fishing gears, raising size limits, and reducing harvest. While they claim to be speaking on behalf of a voiceless resource, not themselves, you could easily argue that they are the only ones who benefit from their actions. Afterall, an individual who has no intention of harvesting their catch has everything to gain and nothing to lose by supporting management measures to reduce harvest.

Of course, reducing harvest doesn’t always result in more fish, only successful reproduction can do that, but if you are strictly a catch and release angler, reducing harvest always results in more fish for you. Simply put, under the guise of fishery management, they can successfully reallocate the resource from those who want a seafood dinner to themselves without revealing their true intent. Have you ever noticed how those who advocate for reducing harvest always come back and claim the declining harvest is proof the prior harvest reductions failed?

            Sustenance anglers who have become frustrated with increasing size limits and decreasing bag limits blame commercial fishermen, and unknowingly support the agenda that’s taking their fish away. This has created a revolving door of fisheries management and every time the door comes full circle, harvest is reduced once again, creating more frustration and more support for future management/reallocation. While the tragedy of the commons has been used to demonize commercial fishermen, the real tragedy is more “the tragedy of the common man” or the majority who view our fisheries as a source of food.

            Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with catch and release fishing, but I do have a problem with those who champion catch and release as a conservation strategy. Raising size limits, lowering creel limits, or choosing to catch and release can be effective at reducing harvest, especially commercial harvest, but seldom significantly reduces the total number of fish being killed.

            Simply put, whether their goal is to catch and release as many fish as possible or to catch a limit of keepers (which now have to be much larger than before) fishermen spend more time on the water and their catch increases. Increased catch results in increased discards and subsequent discard mortality (waste). While harvest was reduced, the increase in release mortality minimizes any benefit to the fish stocks, and you guessed it, further harvest reductions are required! Anglers are shamed for harvesting four flounder but are praised for releasing forty, despite the fact that both scenarios resulted in four dead fish. This type of “moral management” has resulted in ever increasing waste of our fisheries resources and decreased access for the common man.

I’ve heard it said many times that “commercial fishermen should learn how to make more by catching less”. As a fisherman, the concept of making more money from less fish is quite appealing, but it raises the question – who foots the bill? For me to make more money from less fish, seafood dealers have to pay me more and in turn have to charge more when they resale the product. If processers, retailers, and restaurants have to pay more, then they have to increase their prices to the end user, the consumer. Studies have shown that seafood consumers will pay more for fresh local seafood, but what about those who can’t afford to pay premium prices? That’s right, like anglers who fish for food, the consumers who can’t afford to pay $15 to $20 a pound for seafood are, through management, losing access to the resource they own. Again, the common man pays the price so a privileged few can enjoy unlimited access to a public trust resource.

This tragedy of the common man is being played out in NC and other coastal states across the nation. How long will it be before church groups can’t harvest enough fish to justify their annual fishing trip on a head boat? When will the average family cancel their trip to the fishing pier because the cost simply outweighs the reward? How expensive does seafood have to be before the common man can no longer afford a mess of fish? The common man’s access to these public trust resources is in jeopardy and will continue to be as long as we view fish as trophies rather than food.

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