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Fishing: Group gathers support for investment bill

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Reese Hair remembers the day 30 years ago he decided to become a commercial fisherman. He and his father were on the roof of a spec house they were building. It was July.

“There’s got to be a better way,” they said. “Let’s go out in the ocean.”

Grouper sold for 45 cents a pound, but they feared that the construction business was becoming over-regulated.

“How stupid was I?” Hair said.

Paperwork seems to fill the hold of his two boats more often than fish, so he was interested when he heard about the Fisheries Investment and Regulatory Relief Act. The bill was introduced in Congress in March and is now in committee. Interested, but not overly optimistic.

Still, it was too rough to fish on Monday so he met with a representative of the Pew Environment Group, which supports the bill, for the first of a series of meetings to gather information and support in South Carolina.

“This kind of insight is important for the committee level,” said Dean Foster, whose marketing company is setting up the meetings. The first was in Murrells Inlet and also included Rutledge Leland, owner of Carolina Seafood and mayor of McClellanville, and Rick Baumann, owner of Murrells Inlet Seafood.

Hair also owns a commercial seafood packing house. His two boats represent nearly 12 percent of the commercial fishing fleet in Murrells Inlet, which he puts at 17 boats. There are 46 licensed boats in the state, he said.

The proposed legislation would take funds that are collected from import duties on fish products, estimated at $124 million this year, and create a regional grant program to fund fisheries research. It would also require investment plans in the eight fishery regions. The import duties are currently used to fund operations of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The grants could be used for stock assessments, catch monitoring, habitat restoration and other programs to help sustain fishing communities.

The reform portion of the bill mandates a review of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which created the regional fishery councils and sets the criteria for managing the fisheries.

“The biggest step is that somebody’s actually concerned,” Leland said. “I haven’t seen that in a long time.”

The bill was introduced in the Senate by John Kerry of Massachusetts and Olympia Snowe of Maine. The lead sponsor in the House is Barney Frank of Massachusetts. Foster said the results of the meetings in South Carolina will be shared with the state’s congressional delegation to try to garner support.

Commercial fishing interests oppose the bill.

“It seems that the overriding issue is that fishing groups, commercial and recreational, want as their number one legislative goal reform of the Magnuson-Stevens Act so the regional fishery management councils have more flexibility in setting annual catch limits and fishery rebuilding plans,” said Tom Swatzel, who serves on the Southeastern council.

The councils are prohibited from lobbying for bills. Swatzel didn’t attend the meeting on the proposed bill.

“I think that fishing groups want the MSA amended before any consideration of spending more money on the system via the FIRRA. I also think that the Recreational Fishing Alliance and other groups believe that if the FIRRA passes, that MSA reform will fall by the wayside politically” Swatzel said.

The Pew Environment Group opposes amending Magnuson-Stevens, he noted.

Baumann said the biggest problem he sees with the current fisheries law is that it was written in 1975 when there was still a sizable commercial fleet on the East Coast. It hasn’t kept pace with the changing economy, he said, “it hasn’t been amended to consider the human factor.”

When he ran a commercial packing operation, trucks from Canada lined up to load Murrells Inlet seafood, Baumann said. Not any more.

Hair docks his boats at Divine’s restaurant on the Marsh Walk. There are no commercial docks. The price of waterfront property makes it too valuable for a fishery, Leland said. McClellanville businesses like his survive because their property is assessed at the 2 percent agricultural rate for property taxes. The national downturn in real estate markets also bought the fisheries a little time, he said.

The proposed legislation could help if it lifted some of the regulatory burden, Hair said. He reports data from his boats (on paper) and his fish house (electronically). “They’ve been taking data from us since 1994,” he said. “When I send in data, they won’t use it.”

It isn’t just the waste of effort that rankles. Take the gag grouper limit.

“They’re saying we caught our limit,” Hair said. “Everybody on the East Coast knows we’ve only caught half our limit.”

He believes more and better data would help. “The viability of our going fishing is determined by data,” Hair said.

Overall, Rutledge thinks the fisheries investment act is a good idea. He’s concerned that the committees that would be created to come up with the investment plan that would be the basis for the grants won’t represent commercial fishing interests. That might not be because of a flaw in the legislation.

“Commercial fishermen tend not to want to be out there” in the process, Leland said. “They tend to be individuals, people who like to be left alone.”

That’s the view Hair takes on the investment side of the proposal. “I don’t want help. I just want to be able to work,” he said.

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