N.C., Shrimp Companies Sued for Discarded Fish

North Carolina Fishers Reform Group (NCCFRG) et al., sued several commercial shrimp companies and the state of North Carolina on Tuesday for violations of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and the Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA).  The defendants have allegedly been discharging pollutants and dredging in navigable waters without a permit as required by the CWA.  This suit was filed in the Eastern District of North Carolina.

The specific area of water at issue is Pamlico Sound, known as the “fishing gem of North Carolina” and is known as the largest embayed estuary in the world.  Additional plaintiffs, Joseph Albea, David Sammons, Captain Seth Vernon, Captain Richard Andrews, and Dwayne Bevell are either members of NCCFRG or professional fishing guides that depend on the health of the Pamlico Sound for their livelihood. 

In the complaint, the plaintiffs explained that the defendant trawling companies’ practice of commercial shrimping consists of dragging trawl nets along the bottom of the sound.  This equipment captures not only shrimp, but other fish and marine species that are unable to escape from the nets.  The unwanted excess fish and marine species are known as bycatch. “It is generally accepted that for every one pound of shrimp harvested in North Carolina coastal waters, roughly four pounds of bycatch are discarded.” The commercial shrimp companies dump the majority of bycatch back into the sound, which the plaintiffs constitutes pollution and amounts to a large portion of fish; “[f]or example, in 2017 commercial shrimping operations caught nearly fourteen million pounds of shrimp in North Carolina water.”  Approximately, 8.5 million pounds of shrimp were caught in Pamlico Sound, which means potentially, 34 million pounds of bycatch was released back into the sound.  Thus, plaintiffs argue shrimping bycatch removes millions of juvenile fish, preventing them from joining the adult population.  As a result, “some of North Carolina’s fisheries have experienced steep and species-threatening declines in certain finfish populations, which at times have resulted in the fishing seasons for those species to close prematurely or not open.”  

Under the first cause of action, illegal discharge of pollutants under the CWA, the plaintiffs argued that federal courts confirmed that redepositing materials originally from a body of water subject to the CWA back into that body of water constitutes the discharge of a pollutant.  Next, the CWA requires a permit for any person wishing to discharge dredged or filled materials into navigable waterways.  The plaintiffs argued that defendant trawlers methods and equipment “along the bottom of the Pamlico Sound to harvest shrimp results in the dredging of the Sound’s estuarine sediments.” The disturbance, removal, and redepositing require a permit, which defendants do not have.  The third cause alleged all defendants have violated other North Carolinians public trust rights to use and enjoy the state’s coast water and their fisheries, as protected under the North Carolina Public Trust Doctrine.

The plaintiffs are seeking the court to find that the defendants have violated the CWA and North Carolina Public Trust Doctrine, and for the court to enjoin the trawling companies from continuing shrimp using their methods, until defendants can prove there will be no violations to the CWA.  They also asked the court to order the agency defendant to take steps to assure compliance with the CWA and trust doctrine by commercial shrimp companies.  Finally, the commercial defendants pay the $25,000 fine under the CWA for every day of violations.

The plaintiffs are represented by Calhoun, Bhella & Sechrest, LLP.