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SUNDAY, DECEMBER 05, 2004

CRC passes Coastal Habitat Protection Plan

By K.J. Williams
Sun Journal Staff


It took seven years and 15 minutes for the state Coastal Resources Commission to have a General Assembly-mandated 600-page blueprint protecting North Carolina's coastal waters ready for its approval, passing it in a 9-0 vote in New Bern on Friday.

The commission had worked on the Coastal Habitat Protection Plan alongside the Marine Fisheries Commission and the Environmental Management Commission since the General Assembly instructed the groups in 1997 to develop a plan to protect coastal habitat and its fisheries.

The meeting Friday, including the vote, took 15 minutes.

On Thursday in Morehead City, the Marine Fisheries Commission gave its go-ahead with its unanimous 7-0 vote. In a second unanimous vote, the commission also directed the state Division of Marine Fisheries, part of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, to draft a plan for achieving one of the plan's goals, the identification and protection of habitats central to marine fisheries.

As a final step, the plan must be approved by the Environmental Management Commission, which is expected to give its approval Thursday in Raleigh.

Coastal Resources Commissioner Doug Langford moved for the plan's passage Friday, after restating a condition that was written into the document recently, making it clear that the plan does not include rules that could alter current regulations.

"And it shall serve as a resource document only," he noted.

Acting vice chairman Courtney Hackney, filling in for chairman Eugene Tomlinson, did not attend due to sickness, said the plan lays out threats to marine habitat and describes ways to stop those threats.

"It's a set of recommendations based on the best science we have," he said.

With its Fisheries Reform Act of 1997, the legislature set out a deadline - the end of December 2004 - for the plan to be drafted and approved by the three commissions.

"Now, comes the hard work ladies and gentlemen - making this into something that works," Hackney told commissioners.

Ultimately, new rules that support the plan's goals could be passed to supplement current regulations.

The plan lists general goals for the commissions to achieve together, including ones to strengthen enforcement of current regulations. It calls for heightened monitoring of habitats and fisheries of various species, the expansion of educational programs for the public and improved conservation. The plan also recommends increasing inspections of wastewater treatment facilities and land disposal sites, as well as the consideration of rules that would prohibit ocean wastewater discharges.

In an interview, Hackney said the General Assembly has acted as a trailblazer when it became the first state to enact a fisheries reform law. The law was in response to reports on the degradation of coastal waters and depleting fisheries, he said.

"I think we're now at the point where the coast has pneumonia," Hackney said.

The Fisheries Reform Act applies to the coast, including waters inside barrier islands like Pamlico Sound.

The health of the coastal waters and its fisheries impact commercial and recreational fishermen. Depleting stocks of fish and polluted and diseased oyster beds hurt commercial hauls, while recreational fishing impacts the economy, Hackney said.

Each commission could enact rules in keeping with the plan as it sees fit.

A final copy of the plan is to be posted on the state's Division of Marine Fisheries Web site in February at www.ncfisheries.net.

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