Appeals court says NC fishing challenge can continue

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Inshore recreational anglers can continue to sue the state of North Carolina over charges that government regulators devastated inshore fishing stocks in violation of the state constitution. state, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

The Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina and more than 80 people sued the state in 2020, alleging it breached its fiduciary duty to protect the state’s fisheries from overfishing. Their complaint cited constitutional provisions giving people the right to hunt and fish and making it the policy of the state “to preserve and protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizens.”

The constitutional right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife was approved by voters in November 2018. The “conserve and protect” language cited in the lawsuit was added to the constitution in 1972.

In particular, the fishermen blamed the State Marine Fisheries Division and the State Marine Fisheries Commission for allowing excessive for-profit commercial fishing and certain fishing methods that they claim have led to dramatic declines in some fish stocks since 1997. The plaintiffs want a court to declare violations occurred and compel the state to make changes.

Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins declined last year to dismiss the lawsuit. He dismissed arguments by state Justice Department lawyers that individual rights were not violated in the challenged constitutional provisions, which only partly clarifies the policies and functions of the state. . State prosecutors also said the state has not waived sovereign immunity, which exempts the state government from prosecution unless an agency consents to be sued.

The state appealed Collins’ decision. Appeals Court Judge Toby Hampson wrote on Tuesday that state courts have so far not ruled on whether sovereign immunity bars someone from suing. to court to enforce the state’s “public trust” obligations.

The doctrine of public trust states that natural resources are held under the responsibility of the government for the benefit of present and future generations. But Hampton said a review of North Carolina law by the three-judge panel hearing the case determines that sovereign immunity does not bar such claims.

“The doctrine of sovereign immunity will not stand in the way of citizens of North Carolina seeking to remedy violations of their rights guaranteed by the Constitution of North Carolina,” Hampson wrote in the unanimous opinion. And he said the plaintiffs’ alleged wrongs – failure to protect public waters and exercise the right to harvest fish – cannot be resolved by any other means.

The Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina welcomed Tuesday’s ruling, which was also accepted by Appeals Court Judge Hunter Murphy and April Wood.

“We look forward to proving our case on the merits and ensuring that sustainable coastal fishing will be there for our children and grandchildren,” David Sneed, the group’s chief executive, said in a statement.

Marine Fisheries Division spokeswoman Patricia Smith said state prosecutors are reviewing Tuesday’s ruling and considering an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The suit was filed in November 2020. He said fisheries regulators have “continued to allow – and even facilitate – several commercial fishing practices that result in substantial waste of coastal fish stocks or their prey species, or lead to the destruction of critical habitats”.

These practices included shrimp trawling in estuarine waters heavily populated with young fish, unattended gillnets and chronic overfishing of popular species, according to the association. Fish stocks that have declined markedly include acoupa, Atlantic croaker and river herring, according to the conservation group.

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