Fishermen hope legislation benefits industry

Rick Baumann, owner of Murrells Inlet Seafood, said a new piece of legislation would be the first step in the right direction for the overregulated fisheries.

The Fisheries Investment and Regulatory Relief Act of 2012 (FIRRA) remains at the congressional committee level since its introduction in March.

The FIRRA bill calls for funding to support fisheries and fishing communities and to eliminate burdensome regulations. The bill also would lead to more research.

Locals in the fishing industry, including Baumann, hope the research could lead to further regulatory change to the Magnuson-Stevens Act which sets catch limits designed to prevent overfishing, but also has fishermen stuck at the docks.J. Dean Foster, with Foster Associates, a marketing group based in Charleston, said the congressional committee likely will debate the bill early next year. Foster is working with Pew Environment Group to drum up support for the bill.

That’s why he met with three men, including Baumann, in Murrells Inlet Monday.

“It’s our hope that our Republican delegation can reach across the aisle and see the need and support heard by their constituents regardless of who put their name on the bill,” Foster said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re reaching out to folks here and making them aware of it.”

Local fishermen, like Jay Davis, have been outspoken about the regulations which frequently force commercial fishers to stay docked. “Its pretty rough right now,” Davis said. “They’ve [the government] got everything shut off but just a few species that we don’t get paid a lot of money for.”

Davis wasn’t at the meeting with Foster and said he didn’t even know it was happening until too late. But, he hopes it was productive.

“I hope this meeting was about doing something to help us,” he said.

He has been fishing since 1995 and now struggles to make ends meet because he’s not allowed to catch and sell fish like black sea bass and grouper.

“It’s not an easy life to begin with and when [regulators] restrict us like this it just makes it harder,” he said.

When he’s forced to dock his boat, he said it’s like having his hands tied

“You just hope and pray that you’ve saved up enough money to survive the winter. If you have anything worth anything you sell it.”

Foster said Pew Environment Group thinks the FIRRA bill could help.

“It makes sense for [Pew] on many levels,” he said. “The one area of interest is the amount of research funding this [bill] would generate for the fishery. One of the criticisms in the past is that there’s distrust in some of the science, and there never seems to be enough money or enough manpower to do proper science and proper research that ends up being led to regulation change and impacting commercial fishermen.”

Under FIRRA Revenue from duties on imported fish products would be redirected, according to Pew, with 70 percent of the money – an estimated $85 million – going to a regionally-based grant program to fund research.

Davis said more research would be helpful.

“We understand that we need to watch our fish and not deplete them,” he said. “But the people that are making the rules and regulations have no earthly idea what they’re doing and they won’t take advice from fishermen because they think we just catch fish. They need to do a whole lot of research. I don’t know where they get their facts.”

One of the most frustrating points for Davis is seeing the fish he’s forced to throw back in the ocean die, he said.

“Very few fish that you throw back in that come out of the deep water survive because of how deep they were,” he said. “When we bring them up they don’t have time for their body to adjust to the pressure.”

Some do survive, he said, but most can be seen floating on the surface of the water.

“I just don’t know how that’s helping the species if we’re killing them [accidentally] and not being able to bring them back in shore,” he said.

Baumann said he understood if fishermen were worried about the environmental group’s involvement, but said the support of this bill is refreshing because it acknowledges the “human factor.”

“The FIRRA bill that we discussed here today is a refreshing reflection of change in the position of Pew to realize there is a human factor in this and an economic factor,” he said. “There’s no doubt that if this bill can get passed with its intentions intact that it will help the fishing industry and everybody involved in it.”

Baumann still hopes Magnuson-Stevens Act can be amended, but said starting with passing FIRRA will help.

“This FIRRA bill is a good first step in the right direction to repairing the seafood industry,” he said.