Interviewee: Dan Whittle

Role: NC Assistant Secretary of Natural Resources policy advisor

Date of Interview: July 21, 2016

Collection: 1997 North Carolina Fisheries Reform Act

Click on the link below to play the audio clip from the interviewee.

Abstract: In his role with state government, attorney Dan Whittle attended the NC Fisheries Moratorium Steering Committee meetings. He was interviewed about the development and passage of the Fisheries Reform Act, and about the successes and shortcomings of the act as a framework for managing coastal fisheries resources.

Transcript: There was concern that there were too many commercial fishermen on the water, that stocks--fish stocks--were declining. There had been a lot of controversy between recreational fishermen and commercial fishermen over how to allocate the resource. But, ultimately, there was concern from many quarters that a break was needed, that there was a need to cap the number of commercial fishermen and to take time out to understand how to better manage--whether that meant allocating more quota to recreational fishing sector, or reducing the number of boats, or something. But it was basically a time out so all the various stakeholders could come together with scientists and managers and officials and talk it through.

There was not a lot of unity. There was not a lot of consensus, as I recall. There was a general consensus that public waters, that coastal waters were supposed to be held for the public, something called the public trust doctrine. There seemed to be a general consensus that North Carolina is an important state for fishing, for fisheries, and critically important to sustained fish populations. But, as I recall, that was about where the agreement broke down. There was a real debate over who was entitled to those fish.

Conservation groups were involved in the 1997 act in order to make sure that, if you've got fishing right, you've also protected the habitats that they're dependent upon. And that sort of was an interesting debate because the state was also figuring out what to do with run-off from hog farms and other farming that was polluting the waters. There were a bunch of fish kills back then in the Neuse River, for example. Scientists at N.C. State [University] were trying to figure out what was causing the fish kills.

I think twenty years for one piece of legislation's a long time. I mean, typically, with environmental legislation, the goal is to reauthorize it, to review and reauthorize every five years or so. Circumstances change, demographics change, economics change. Certainly, the coast has changed in North Carolina. It looks a lot different today than it did back then. More people live there, there are fewer commercial fishermen. I would say that the resource is in better shape, catch limits and size limits, management measures, seem to be working better than they did. You see fewer species that are overfished in North Carolina and throughout the U.S. So all that's good. From a perspective of commercial fishing, I think it may be a dying industry in North Carolina.

What the Moratorium Steering Committee did was to convene gatherings where people came and could be heard, could talk and could be listened to. That was a valuable lesson, and it showed that what appeared to be irreconcilable differences were not that irreconcilable. We weren't successful on completely doing that, and there was still work to do afterwards. There's still a level of acrimony among the various sectors in North Carolina. But I think it was a very effective tool and I think the biggest lesson is maybe one of process; starting off by saying everyone has a legitimate interest in this policy debate, everyone needs to be heard.