Glenn Skinner isn’t happy.
Skinner is a licensed commercial fisherman who relies on his catch to make a profit. He’s been on the water 47 years; he started accompanying his longshoreman father on boats at age 3. Like most of his commercial brethren, Skinner doesn’t limit himself to one type of catch—he snags finfish using a gill net in the spring, trawls for shrimp in the summer, and spots roe mullet from his boat’s tower in the fall.
I met Skinner on a hot day in early June at a Beaufort processing center, or fish house, where he typically brings his catch. Skinner is soft-spoken and wore an Ocean and Coast shirt and a Myrtle Beach hat. He’s been out on the water less and less over the past five years, he said as we talked in the dust by his truck, which sported an “Eat Local Seafood” sticker. He’s become increasingly frustrated with what he sees as overregulation at the state level due to lobbyists who want to curtail commercial fishing.
“I couldn’t make up my mind if I wanted to get into the fight or get out of the fishery,” said Skinner. He chose the former, and now serves as the executive director of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, a nonprofit that advocates for commercial fishing interests at the state and federal levels.
The following day, I met Rip Woodin, a 76-year-old in boat shoes and a fly-fishing T-shirt, in the noisy lobby of a fly-fishing conference in Morehead City. Woodin, like Skinner, is a North Carolinian deeply invested in fishing. And like Skinner, he’s not happy.
Woodin started fly-fishing while working as a journalist in Wyoming, and bought an 18-foot boat when he moved to Atlantic Beach in 2005. His favorite to catch are redfish, which slither through spartina grass hunting for crabs during the full moon. He’s on the water about 25 days a year, but keeps very little of what he brings in—he says he releases most of his catches because he’s worried about the stock, as commercial fishers scoop up 200,000 pounds of redfish annually.
Skinner and Woodin represent opposite sides of a bitter dispute in North Carolina. Commercial fishermen like Skinner accuse recreational fishermen of promoting overregulation by pushing the state to impose gear limitations, reclassify species as recreational only, and restrict shrimp trawls in certain areas. Skinner believes these measures are imperiling the livelihood of people who rely on the sea to make a living—and he believes they are partially responsible for driving the number of commercial fishers down from more than 5,300 in 1994 to under 2,300 in 2021.
Recreational fishing, meanwhile, is booming. The number of licenses was up to 513,000 in 2021. Between 18 and 20 million recreational trips leave from the North Carolina coast every year. It would be wrong to think of recreational fishers as simply hobbyists casting lines off their back docks; they, too, are involved in a multimillion-dollar industry, as charter boats launch from places like Wilmington, Morehead City, and Manteo all summer to give tourists a chance to catch the big one—or at least one big enough to snap a new profile photo.
But recreational fishers worry the fish they rely on are rapidly disappearing, and blame the Division of Marine Fisheries for not doing more to manage catch limits and gear on the commercial side. With the backing of the powerful Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) of North Carolina, part of a national nonprofit coalition that advocates for a more conservation-minded approach to fishing, they’ve lobbied the state to set new limits on gill nets and shrimp trawls. (Earlier this month, a federal court shot down a different conservation group’s attempts to force the state to curtail commercial shrimping practices in Pamlico Sound.)
Tensions between the two camps blew up in 2020, when the CCA filed a lawsuit against North Carolina asserting regulators had failed to uphold the state constitution by not managing fisheries in the public interest. The lawsuit isn’t expected to go to court until 2024 or 2025, but the stakes are high; if the CCA wins, the state fisheries division would have to develop a new management plan with the group’s input.
Skinner’s group tried to sign on as a party in the case, but a judge denied their attempt, saying that only the state is responsible for a case about upholding—or not upholding—the state constitution. For now, Skinner and his allies are waiting and watching. “My personal belief is that they are just trying to get it recognized that recreational fishing is a constitutional right and commercial is something far less,” Skinner said.
It’s a complex, deeply political debate, not easily parsed along class, political, or ideological lines. And under it are existential questions about the future of North Carolina’s coast.
Officially, the Cape Lookout Fly Fishers event in Morehead City in early June had nothing to do with the Coastal Conservation Association. But there were plenty of CCA board members and lawsuit plaintiffs in attendance.
Throughout the recreation center, celebrities of the fly-fishing world piled their tables high with lure-crafting supplies: shiny threads, rabbit hides, scissors, packs of dyed feathers. Folks who had traveled to tournaments all over the world together caught up and showed off photos of their children and grandchildren holding giant fish.
One of the presenters was Jan Willis, a Carteret County native who’s been a fly fisher since 2007. Willis sat at her table with a case of shimmery flies, a device with a clamp for holding up a fly while working on it, and piles of crafting material. She demonstrated how to tie a Clouser—a type of artificial fly—with bucktail fur that’s both pure white and dyed Barbie pink. This type attracts little tunny and bluefish; the synthetic flash mimics the iridescence of a minnow.
Willis is one of the 86 co-plaintiffs on the CCA lawsuit, and her husband serves as president of the CCA board. Soon after she started angling, she plunged into policy issues and learned how “the state managed, or didn’t manage, our fisheries.” She doesn’t believe that commercial fishing should disappear, but thinks there “needs to be more emphasis on recreational, and more study and thought on types of gear, gill nets, and the size of shrimp trawls that they’re allowed to pull in Pamlico Sound.”
Since 1997, the state has governed its coastal waters under the Fisheries Reform Act, which calls on the Division of Marine Fisheries to manage the fish stocks to allow both groups to achieve their goals: for commercial to harvest seafood for a profit and for recreational to harvest seafood for fun. (Although much of the policy is set at the state level, some of the fisheries are dually managed by the state and by regional consortiums under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also known as NOAA.)
But recreational fishermen like Willis and Woodin, who also attended the June event, believe that the Division of Marine Fisheries has long favored commercial interests, leading to overfishing and fishery collapse.
According to the state, 17 of North Carolina’s fisheries are considered in critical condition. That includes shad, mullet, estuarine striped bass, blue crab, and the Southern flounder, which has declined by 90 percent since its peak, according to the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. With numbers like that, shifting the state’s policies toward conservation would benefit everyone, these fishers argue.
They’re also troubled by the amount of bycatch generated by the commercial side. Bycatch refers to the fish, often juvenile, that are swept up in nets and by trawl doors during the process of commercial fishing.
In 2016, the N.C. Wildlife Federation released a bycatch study. Over four years, observers from the group accompanied shrimp fishermen on approximately 1 percent of trips, charting bycatch from several different fisheries. For spot croaker, they found as many as 230 million fish caught in bycatch over the four year period, with a mortality rate of 66 percent. For Atlantic croaker, they observed 5.1 million fish in bycatch, with a mortality rate of 23 percent.
“I do understand that commercial fishermen have a long heritage, a long legacy of fishing,” David Sneed, a recreational fisherman and hunter from Washington, N.C., and the executive director of the CCA, told me. “When somebody starts talking about conservation, they perceive that as a threat to their livelihood. But those of us who are working to preserve our fisheries, it’s all about putting something away for the future.”
One issue Sneed and his allies point to is the use of gill nets, or vertical nets that hang off boats and trap fish by the gills. Some other states, including Texas and Florida, have banned their use within state waters; others, including South Carolina, have greatly limited use.
The CCA supports banning the nets here, too, because of the danger they pose for sea turtles. In 2013, the state secured a federal permit that allowed it to circumvent federal endangered species protections so commercial fishermen could continue to use gill nets. The permit allows for 428 live turtles caught in nets per year and 214 dead ones without penalty.
In 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, fewer than 45 sea turtles were stranded alive and fewer than 25 died as a result of fishermen using nets, according to the Division of Marine Fisheries. That permit is up for renewal by the end of August, and the CCA is conducting an outreach and advocacy campaign to urge the state to reject it.
At the fly-fishing event, I sat in a strip of shade outside listening to attendees’ fears about the fisheries. One of them, Ken Eiler, has lived and fly fished on Harkers Island for 14 years. He said he believes that commercial fishing should continue but as a fraction of what it is today.
He described watching shrimpers spread nets on the deck, pick out the shrimp, then dump all the small, dead fish back into the water while sharks and seagulls circle the boat. “The buffalo hunter did it the same way till they killed the last one,” he said.
Folks like Eiler see the future of North Carolina’s coast not in commercial fishing enterprises, but in generating enthusiasm for fishing in the public. “The future of Carteret County is in tourism and recreational fishing,” he said.
He believes that families will vacation in South Carolina or Texas if North Carolina’s fishing stock tanks, which could cost the state a great deal of income. According to NOAA, in 2020, the North Carolina recreational industry contributed $955 million to the state economy—six times more than commercial.
Fish houses like the one where I met Skinner are essential institutions in the commercial fishing industry. Most fishermen don’t hold licenses to sell directly to the consumer, so these fish houses are the middlemen where the catch is unloaded and processed.
As the number of active fishermen has dropped, so too has the number of fish houses—down 41 percent between 2000 and 2020, according to a study by Duke University anthropologist Barbara Garrity-Blake. Skinner blames overregulation; owners couldn’t make enough to survive and sold off their property to coastal developers.
This summer, everyone’s talking about flounder regulation. In 2019, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) mandated a 72 percent reduction in total harvest. Both commercial and recreational fishermen would have to curtail their flounder activities. In that original mandate, the DEQ said commercial fishermen would get 70 percent of the remaining flounder allocation, while recreational fishermen would get 30 percent. To keep within that limit, the Division of Marine Fisheries rules allowed only one flounder per person per day some weeks.
But two years ago, the recreational representative on the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission moved to change the allocation to 50-50. The commission passed an amendment last year mandating an equal split by 2026.
That change infuriated the commercial fishers.
“On the face of it, it seems, of course it should be fair,” said Garrity-Blake, who teaches marine fisheries policy at the Duke University Marine Laboratory. “But if you dig a little deeper, it flies in the face of historical trends. And why is a very powerful recreational sector all the more intent on taking away product from our food sector? Off the consumer’s plate? It’s really beyond me.”
Another big issue is documentation. Commercial fishermen follow strict rules when it comes to reporting their catch: They are required to use state-issued trip tickets to document what they catch the minute they pull up to the dock.
Oversight of recreational fishermen is looser; they receive mailed surveys from NOAA and can be subject to random interviews by state Division of Marine Fisheries employees on docks and piers who ask them what species they caught and how much they threw back. Government researchers then extrapolate those numbers to estimate how much recreational fishermen catch each year, a system that Steve Poland, a regulator at the Division of Marine Fisheries, called “best available science.”
There’s a sense among the commercial side that they get all the blame for decimating the fisheries when recreational fishing plays a big part, too. “In any given year we may have more than a million people who fish in our coastal waters,” said Poland.
Commercial fishermen are also disturbed by the practice of catch and release: in 2021, the recreational sector caught and released 2.5 million redfish. As much as 18 percent of fish caught die once they’re thrown back into the ocean, and the practice has been banned in Germany, Switzerland, and Colombia.
Duke anthropologist Garrity-Blake’s research bears this out. “The assumption about recreational fishermen is that one person with one hook and line could not possibly do damage to our fisheries. The data shows that they do in fact do damage to our fisheries.”
Take the redfish. While commercial fishermen scoop up 200,000 pounds of them annually, recreational fishermen harvested nearly 1.5 million pounds in 2021, according to the Division of Marine Fisheries. Recreational fishing also caught more spotted seatrout and Spanish mackerel, while commercial caught more amberjack and seabass.
At the fish house where Skinner takes his catch, around 200 fishermen bring a variety of species, depending on the weather and season, including scallops from the coveted scallop fishery. As Skinner stood on a weathered wooden deck looking out over the moored boats and glinting water toward Pivers Island, he reflected on the misconceptions that he believes are harming his livelihood.
“There’s that Wild, Wild West perception that we’re not regulated, that we just go out there and do anything we want,” he said. On the contrary, he said, fishing landed on the list of top 10 most regulated industries in 2014, just behind airlines, according to a study out of George Mason University.
The Coastal Conservation Association’s lawsuit probes a philosophical question: Who owns the state’s fish?
The lawsuit relies on the public trust doctrine, a legal principle traceable to Roman law that holds that the state has a responsibility to preserve common lands or resources for use by the people. North Carolina courts first recognized this doctrine in 1903, in a dispute over land access between a hotel and publicly owned land in Morehead City.
More recently, the doctrine has been cited in lawsuits related to government culpability in climate change, although a University of Michigan study from 2021 showed that the “lofty language” that typically surrounds the doctrine is not effective in forcing policy change.
Recreational fishing interests say this means that all fishermen should enjoy a constitutionally enshrined right to access the state’s fish. “The commercial fishermen say we want ‘their’ fish,” said Woodin. “But the fish belong to all 10.7 million North Carolinians.”
The CCA lawsuit alleges that by allowing commercial fishing to decimate those stocks, the state had abrogated its duty to protect the fisheries for all. The state “has continued to allow—and even facilitated—several commercial fishing practices that result in substantial wastage of coastal fish stocks or their prey species, or result in critical habitat destruction,” the CCA claims.
The N.C. Fisheries Association, the group headed by Skinner, responded in early 2021 with a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. They questioned why anyone would believe that the state’s constitution enshrines the recreational right to fish and not the commercial right. The motion was denied. The case has been caught up in legal back-and-forth since then, with a trial date still pending.
The CCA is asking the court to rule that the state has abrogated its duty to manage a public resource for all North Carolinians, and is asking to play a role in a new management plan. The details remain vague; they are not asking for a specific law or regulation.
When I asked Sneed about the vagueness, he agreed that it’s an unusual approach to a lawsuit. This lawsuit is about a philosophy, not a specific legal statute, he said, and its intent is as a jumping-off point to force the state to change laws, regulations, and priorities to favor conservation.
Recreational fishermen claim that the Division of Marine Fisheries has always been stacked against conservation and in favor of the commercial side. With this lawsuit they’re trying to right a decades-long wrong that allowed commercial to use too much gear, to take too much fish, and to fish in too many places. “If DMF had listened to us 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be doing this,” Woodin said.
But for Skinner and his commercial allies, the lawsuit is another way for CCA to gain more control over fisheries.
“The CCA started out saying, ‘They’re killing fish, red drum and stuff, bycatch.’ And then when that’s not working, they move to sea turtles. They then file a lawsuit,” Skinner said. “When the lawsuit goes to court, the judge will see that commercial fishing is also a public good.”
There are 17 other CCA chapters on the Gulf and East Coast, and its board and staff here are fishermen. But the group also receives funding from boat manufacturers, a cooler company, powersports stores, and sunglasses and fishing apparel companies—which commercial interests point to as evidence that conservation is just a smoke screen for their own business interests.
“A fight is always about greed or hate,” Skinner said. “This one is more greed than anything.”
Steve Poland, the regulator at the Division of Marine Fisheries, declined to comment on active litigation. Poland grew up on a farm outside Raleigh and now lives in Morehead City, where he fishes recreationally.
Poland said big decisions about fishery management should be left to the legislature. His role as a regulator is to enforce whatever they decide. But as a coastal resident and a state employee, he can say with confidence that the coast is changing.
“It’s not only the environment, but also the economy. The pressures on each sector are going to be very different in the future,” Poland said. “Our resources are finite. The pie is only going to be so large.”
Commercial fishermen are increasingly tying their profession to the modern penchant for local eating. On the stretch of US 70 from Raleigh to Morehead City, you’ll see billboards for NC Catch, a nonprofit that promotes a sustainable commercial sector and exhorts beachgoers to eat local seafood.
But that vision is a long way from becoming a reality. North Carolina exports plenty of its fish—and, rather infamously, sometimes imports cheap substitutes, as with the scandal that beset the N.C. Seafood Restaurant in Raleigh in 2021. In North Carolina, a 2019 study for the Division of Marine Fisheries showed that commercial fishermen sell 39 percent of their wares direct to consumers, 15 percent to restaurants, 13 percent to in-state dealers, and 25 percent to out-of-state dealers.
Part of the issue is marketing. Unlike Maine with its lobster or Maryland with its blue crabs (many of which actually come from North Carolina), this state doesn’t boast an iconic coastal delicacy.
But Skinner pointed out that when products are marketed to tourists, their prices typically shoot up. He reminisced about a time when locally caught fish was truly a cheap commodity, when church groups would pull up outside the fish houses with vans full of coolers.
At first blush, this seems to be one point of agreement between the two sides: the importance of eating local fish.
But Sneed argues that commercial fishing cannot adequately meet the demand for local seafood. “Too many people, not enough resources,” Sneed said. He believes that aquaculture, which entails breeding and cultivating fish and crustaceans in controlled environments, either offshore or inland, can and should become a major part of the fishing world—and that the greed of the commercial sector has hurt the poor man’s ability to eat fresh protein.
“People used to go to the coast and plan vacations around going to the beach to fish during spod runs [casting bait-filled containers into the water], eat them for multiple meals, take them home,” he said. “You’ve seen a decline in subsistence fishing.”
Woodin, the CCA member from the fly-fishing event, also lamented the fact that so much seafood goes out of state. He recently visited the Blue Ocean Market in Morehead City and found flounder imported from Virginia. To him, this was a sign that there’s not enough fish to go around.
But Wayne Guthrie, a Beaufort seafood entrepreneur, had another explanation: cost. Guthrie owns North Carolina Outerbanks Seafood, which sells red drum, tuna, mahi, king mackerel, grunt, amberjack, cobia, speckled trout, croaker, and black drum. Seasoning and hot sauce vie for space with huge painted conch shells on Guthrie’s counter.
Guthrie is something of a local legend. Everyone around here calls him “Yankee Wayne” because he moved to North Carolina from Queens in the 1990s. Guthrie’s plainly a seafood enthusiast: he pulls a bucket of scallops from the fridge and exhorts me to smell it. Each scallop is the size of a baby’s fist, distended, and completely dry. You should never buy a scallop that’s sitting in white milky liquid, Guthrie cautions: That means they were treated with chemicals.
Guthrie sells wholesale from Myrtle Beach to Boston and holds 12 fishing licenses himself, but he doesn’t use them anymore. “What can I do with them?” he said. As a local seafood proprietor, he tells restaurants that local seafood is superior to cheap shrimp imported from Honduras or Argentina.
But “you might as well tell that to that conch shell,” he said. It’s all gotten too expensive, the local stuff, and too hard to fish. “Environmentalists and tree-huggers have got this state sewed up,” he groused.
As we talked, a man sauntered into the store looking for two and a half pounds of shrimp. A fisherman dropped off a haul of amberjack, flashed his license, and paused to take a photo of himself grinning with a huge shiny fish before dropping it into his bucket.
Most fishermen I talked to said they can understand or sympathize with the other side. They have friends who identify with the other team. Skinner said he often waves at recreational fishermen and they wave back, only occasionally giving him the middle finger.
“I have come across people in both sectors who have a very high affinity for the outdoors and our natural resource,” said Poland. “They see the intrinsic value of having these resources in North Carolina. In that regard, I’d say they’re similar. But they’re obviously different in the views and perspective they have in terms of what’s the best way to use those resources.”
The last fisherman I talked to at the angling event was Jake Jordan, a legend in the recreational community. Jordan, 81, worked on sport fishing boats and as a commercial codfisher in his youth. He moved to North Carolina in 2006 after a hurricane destroyed his home in the Florida Keys, and now runs angling tours all over the world. He practices catch and release, preferring to buy fish from commercial fishermen, “whose job it is to feed people.”
Jordan echoes some of the recreational talking points—he believes that the fish belong to the people, but he also understands that commercial fishing is a livelihood and heritage for many.
“The word ‘commercial’ with a lot of recreational means something evil,” he said. “It’s not evil to make a living catching fish and feeding your family, as long as you’re living within the regulations. If you want to change the regulations, then elect people to do that.”
Fishermen streamed out of the event, hugging Jordan and excitedly inviting him to lunch. “I’m not sure what the answer is,” he said. “I believe fish belong to everybody and everybody should have a fair shot at the fish.”
Emily Cataneo is a writer and journalist based in Raleigh. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, Atlas Obscura, Undark, and many other venues. She is a co-founder of Raleigh’s Redbud Writing Project.