Sunday, September 20, 2015
CODDLING THE CROOKS
Some interesting news came out of North Carolina last week. The governor has signed a bill that will make it easier for local poachers to get away with violating fisheries laws.
More particularly, he signed a bill which prohibits North Carolina from entering into a joint enforcement agreement, pursuant to which the North Carolina Marine Patrol would be empowered to enforce federal fisheries laws in North Carolina waters, in return for the Marine Patrol receiving additional funding—perhaps as much as $600,000—from the feds for enhancement of the Marine Patrol’s law enforcement activities.
Such joint enforcement agreements have proven to be beneficial to both state and federal fisheries law enforcement agencies. As a result, they have become very popular with state officials on every coast—so popular, in fact, that North Carolina is currently the only coastal state in the nation that does not have one in place.
If North Carolina had a joint enforcement agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service, its Marine Patrol would be able to enter federal waters and enforce NMFS' regulations prohibiting striped bass fishing more than three miles from shore—a chronic problem off North Carolina. A joint enforcement agreement would also make it easier for North Carolina to combat illegal harvest of tuna, grouper, dolphin, snapper and other species normally found outside of state waters.
Better fisheries enforcement in federal waters, along with more money that North Carolina Marine Patrol agents could use to better enforce laws within state waters, would seem to be a win-win situation that would benefit law-abiding fishermen in both the commercial and recreational sectors.
However, a sizeable majority of North Carolina’s state legislators decided this year that a joint enforcement agreement would not be in the best interests of North Carolina’s commercial fishermen.
Why did they feel that way?
An excerpt from an article in Lumina News, a newspaper serving coastal North Carolina, which describes why one member of the state’s Marine Fisheries Commission opposes a joint enforcement agreement, is enlightening.
“Joseph Smith represents the commercial and recreational fishing industry on the commission. He voted against the agreement.
“Smith owns and operates Atlantic Seafood, a wholesale distributor in Hampstead. He said it has become harder to acquire local seafood despite more demand, which he attributes to increased regulation.
“’People don’t realize it’s not because there aren’t any fish. There’s certain kinds of fish that they’ve got rules on that you should be able to catch,” Smith said during a June 30 phone interview.
“He is also worried that additional regulations could push the state’s commercial fishermen out of business.
“’Commercial fishermen are a service to the people of North Carolina. It’s a hard, tough job and it’s a dangerous job. They’re under-appreciated. We need to be mindful and supportive of commercial fishermen because we all want North Carolina seafood,’ Smith said.”
The problem with Smith’s comments is that a joint enforcement agreement would not put a single new regulation in place. So when he argues against the joint enforcement agreement because he believes that regulations make it more difficult to obtain local seafood, and says that “There’s certain kinds of fish that they’ve got rules on that you should be able to catch,” he's not merely opposing proposed new regulations.
The only logical reason to oppose a joint enforcement agreement, based on Smith’s statements, is because you think that existing regulations are bad for commercial fishermen, you believe that “certain kinds of fish” shouldn’t be subject to such existing rules and you don’t want the state to be able to help NMFS enforce such rules.
Or, to put it another way, you want fishermen to be able to violate federal regulations without having to worry about being caught by North Carolina Marine Patrol agents.
Poachers could breathe a lot easier knowing that no joint enforcement agreement is in place.
That rationale for opposing the joint enforcement agreement becomes is confirmed by comments made to Lumina News by ex-Marine Fisheries Commission member Bradley Styron, owner of Quality Seafood.
“Styron said the federal plan does not offer flexibility to tailor federal regulations to state needs.
“’That puts us in a quandary…What’s good for North Carolina is not necessarily good for Massachusetts, and what’s good for Rhode Island is not necessarily good for North Carolina,’ he said.”
Even without a joint enforcement agreement, neither North Carolina nor any other state has the power to “tailor federal regulations to state needs.” The federal regulations are what they are, and must be enforced as written.
However, without a joint enforcement agreement, North Carolina not only hs no power to “tailor” federal regulations, but also has no power to enforce them at all. So even if the same regulations apply to Massachusetts, North Carolina and Rhode Island fishermen, if North Carolina does not enter into a joint enforcement agreement with the feds, then its marine enforcement personnel, unlike their counterparts in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and every other coastal state, has no power to enforce those regulations, even if they are blatantly violated by a North Carolina fisherman.
And that seems to be just what the North Carolina Legislature, and the state’s governor, intends.
For here in New York, we’ve seen what can happen when the state and federal enforcement folks work together closely. According to an article in Newsday,
“Long Island fishing ports have been a chief target of federal and state enforcement actions that found illegal fishing and underreporting of hundreds of thousands of pounds of [summer flounder]…
“In briefing documents…regulators reported that the ‘known illegal harvest’ of [summer flounder] exceeds 50 percent of New York’s annual quota allocation. And ‘the illegal harvest estimate is likely to increase substantially as the investigation in that state continues to unfold,’ noting the 70 subpoenas served in mostly Long Island fishing ports, according to the reports.”
North Carolina’s governor and legislators are making it very clear that they don’t want the same sort of successful enforcement operations to take place down there.
“most of the added enforcement was directed towards commercial fishing, fish houses and even transportation of commercial product.”
However, honest commercial fishermen, fish houses and fish transporters never had anything to worry about, because enforcement agents can’t take any action at all against folks who obey the law.
So when North Carolina Senator Bill Cook, one of the leading opponents of the joint enforcement agreement, said
“I think the federal (government) needs to get out of North Carolina…we need to protect our commercial fishing industry. In 15 or 20 years, federal regulations will run them out of business,”
he wasn’t talking about protecting the honest guys, the commercial fishermen who play by the rules and go out every day trying to make an honest living.
He was taking care of the crooks, the fishermen who already violate federal rules that can’t currently be enforced by the North Carolina Marine Patrol.
He, his allies in the Legislature and the governor in Raleigh are all protecting the status quo, so that lawbreakers can continue to do their illegal business as usual, and the Marine Patrol will continue to be unable to stop them.