North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission-Past, Present, and Future

By Jess Hawkins



North Carolina is widely recognized as one of the premier states in America relative to the wealth of its coastal and marine resources, including its fisheries resources.  The diversity of our fisheries and the productivity of our extensive coastal and marine waters are renown by experts. Coastal fisheries in North Carolina provide significant social, economic, and ecological benefits to our citizens; protecting and managing those resources is a critical responsibility.

Many institutional models exist in the world regarding the management of fisheries. Some countries and states enact fishing laws by representative legislative bodies, where elected officials decide issues such as fish size and catch limits.  These decisions are made while having to deal with many other social and economic concerns.  Other entities empower an executive official such as a fisheries director or czar to determine the appropriate fisheries restrictions.  Others create a specialized body, such as a council, usually composed of people with fisheries expertise to govern those resources; the body is usually appointed by elected officials.  Sometimes managing fisheries is handled by local officials and decisions are made at a community level; this technique is most often used in developing nations or regions with small, local fisheries.

North Carolina historically enacted fishing laws through their elected officials of the General Assembly. As mentioned earlier, officials would have to address fishing issues along with other complex issues and our legislative body did not meet throughout the year.  In 1915 our legislative leaders created a Fisheries Commission, which was a precursor to today’s Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) and was granted specific duties regarding fisheries management programs.  Later, the General Assembly created a Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) to collect scientific data to guide regulations and to implement policy such as enforcement/restoration. Such a management structure allows the MFC to focus on the many fisheries issues facing our state with the aid of scientific data collected by the DMF. Many government institutions choose to create a commission/council of multiple backgrounds to manage public trust resources, as they are empowered to focus on the particular resource and a multi-person body is usually perceived to provide fairer and more balanced decisions. North Carolina also has a unique management tool granted by the General Assembly, called proclamation authority, where the DMF Director, when authorized by the MFC, can change fisheries restrictions with 48 hr notice if warranted by changes in variable conditions.

In 1994 the NC General Assembly undertook a two year comprehensive study of North Carolina entire coastal fisheries management process and passed a temporary moratorium on the sale of most commercial fishing licenses and restriction of non-critical regulations by the MFC. They created a Moratorium Steering Committee (Committee) composed of 20 key stakeholders to undertake the study, being composed of General Assembly members, scientists, and recreational and commercial fishing representatives.  The Committee funded a detailed study to assess the organization and functions of the MFC and DMF, examining multiple fisheries management structures in the USA. Based on the study, numerous discussions by the Committee and 19 public meeting throughout the state, the group recommended that North Carolina retain the MFC, but it should be significantly restructured. Most of the recommendations of the Committee were put into law by the 1997 Fisheries Reform Act (FRA).

Significant changes that were authorized by the FRA to provide for a fairer, more efficient and more effective MFC included: reducing membership from 17 to 9; specifying 2 commercial fishing seats- 2 recreational fishing seats-1 recreational industry seat-1 commercial industry seat-1 scientist seat-and 2 at large seats; creating coastal residency requirements for most of the seats; strengthening ethical requirements; and expanding the MFC’s authority to manage fisheries. The FRA continued the authorization of the Governor to appoint the MFC and allowing MFC members to serve 3 year terms.

The FRA also created four standing committees (Finfish, Crustacean, Habitat/Water Quality, Shellfish) and four regional committees (Northern, Central, Southern, Inland) to advise the MFC on fisheries issues. The committees were to be composed of people with expertise in the subject area or the fisheries in the specified region and were required to have fair representation of recreational and commercial fishermen and scientists. The Moratorium Steering Committee envisioned that the MFC advisory committees would have regular meetings, would create a structure for regular stakeholder input, and that the MFC would commonly refer issues to the advisors for consideration.

The FRA also established advisory committees to help the DMF develop fishery management plans (FMP), which would contain key measures to manage fisheries and ensure sustainable resources.  All significant recreationally and commercially important species would have FMP’s prepared and amended every 5 years. The FMP advisory committees would be composed of individuals with expertise in the particular fishery.

The North Carolina General Assembly and the Committee expected that the MFC appointment criteria and ethics requirements would result in a representative and balanced Commission that would make fair and just decisions. The groups also thought that the MFC would fully utilize the formalized advisory committees composed of stakeholders to help make decisions on often complex issues. They thought that the cornerstone of managing fisheries would be FMPs, where the extensive scientific data collected by DMF and other experts would be incorporated into a management document with key stakeholders having a seat at the table in the development of the FMP.

Since FRA was implemented, five North Carolina Governors have made appointments to the MFC and selected six MFC chairs to lead the Commission. With only nine slots on the MFC, each appointment is significant. The At-large and Scientist appointments are especially critical as recreational and commercial fishing representatives sometimes share similar perceptions of fisheries issues. For over 10 years after the FRA passage the advisory committees met frequently (at least once every 2-3 months) and the MFC frequently utilized their advisory committees and the committees provide input on their own accord.  FMP advisory committees helped develop numerous management plans that contained regulations to try to ensure sustainable resources and address important social/economic issues. Regional and standing committees were used to also to provide advice on FMPs, even when not required by the FRA. FMPs were the primary instrument to manage North Carolina’s resources.

In recent years the MFC has deviated from the intent of the FRA and exhibited little respect for the mandates of this legislation. The MFC misused the FMP process when pursuing actions on Southern Flounder through a supplement rather than an amendment, without using stakeholder input, and little scientific data. The MFC was actually found to have acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner by our courts regarding the Flounder FMP Supplement.


Recently the MFC misused the FMP process and rejected the DMF’s scientific findings concerning actions on a petition for rulemaking by the NC Wildlife Federation calling for numerous and substantial restrictions on shrimp trawling even though a Shrimp FMP had just finished its mandated five-year amendment, which involved two years of scientific assessment, stakeholder input, and public meetings. If for some reason the MFC felt additional restrictions were necessary, they could have revised the FMP schedule and pursued another amendment as provided in the FRA. Instead, the MFC made a decision to abandon the FMP process and manage our resources by piecemeal fashion or an emergency as perceived by special interest groups. They also ignored almost unanimous advice from standing and regional advisory committees that the MFC reject the petition due to process and scientific concerns. While the MFC was completely within their authority to not follow their advisory committees’ advice, they did not provide any reason to advisors for their decision, which was usually provided by post-FRA commissions. The MFC also did not convene its FMP Shrimp advisory committee to provide advice.


Other examples of the MFC recently not using the FMP process within the FRA to guide include actions on cobia, sheepshead, and black drum (not using the Interjurisdictional FMP and its advisory committee). Recently, the MFC pursued and pressed the DMF Director to use proclamation authority for additional striped bass restrictions even though C/S Striped Bass FMP review was beginning and did not solicit advice from any of its advisory committees.

The MFC advisory committees no longer meet regularly and when they do it often in a setting with hundreds of interested people gathered and only given 3 minutes provide comments to the advisors. The Habitat and Water Quality Committee has seldom met in recent years, yet just after the FRA, were meeting every 2-3 months; all experts recognize the importance of habitat and water quality in fisheries production. The Shellfish/Crustacean Committee (combined in recent years) does not meet regularly.

In its recent decision on providing recommendations to the General Assembly regarding possible significant changes to the definition of a commercial fisherman, the MFC did not ask for advice from any advisory committee listed in the FRA, held one public meeting, and even passed measures that had not been discussed in any prior public forum.

Actions taken recently by the MFC generate dismay and uncertainty in the management system created by the FRA that was meant to be predicated on science-data driven decisions, with regular and valued stakeholder input, and balanced interests. The situation has created a crisis of faith in a fair and just Marine Fisheries Commission by its advisors, fishermen, industry representatives, local governments and seafood consumers.

Actions should be taken by North Carolina’s leaders to restore that faith.


-Jess Hawkins has a Master of Science in Biology.  He was the former Chief of Fisheries Management with the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.  He is currently an instructor with the Duke University Marine Laboratory and North Carolina State University CMAST Laboratory teaching Marine Fisheries Ecology.








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