North Carolina’s shrimp industry could face sweeping changes in 2018 following a controversial move to allow a 100-page petition filed by the state Wildlife Federation and the Southern Environmental Law Center to move forward. The 5-3 decision handed down by the Marine Fisheries Commission on Feb. 16 has the entire commercial fishing community braced for what could be a crippling blow to the industry.

The petition, now headed into the rule-making process, calls for all state coastal waters not already designated as nursery areas to be designated as special secondary nursery areas, in which shrimp and crab trawling would be prohibited except during open shrimp season. If approved, these regulations would shorten the number of days shrimp trawlers can fish, how much they can fish and where they can trawl in state waters.

The fact that North Carolina is the only state on the East Coast that still allows shrimp trawling in sounds and rivers is the battle cry of proponents of the proposal. But fishermen and environmentalists say management is doing just fine as is.

“The fact is, this state’s marine fisheries division is doing an outstanding job managing the fishery,” said Melvin Shepard, former president of the board of the North Carolina Coastal Federation. “That’s why we are still shrimping and doing very well at it.”

Jerry Schill, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, is disappointed but far from shocked.

“When the previous governor reappoints a former Coastal Conservation Association board member and a bully who has clearly violated our state’s open meetings laws, as well as appointed two CCA sympathizers to at-large seats, you know the deck is stacked,” says Schill. “That said, I remained optimistic because of the overwhelming [84 percent] vote of the five advisory boards to deny the petition in January.”

For one commercial fisherman attending the meeting, this latest move could have devastating effects.

“If these rules are implemented it will affect their ability to make a living shrimping,” said Albemarle fisherman Terry Pratt . “It will affect 9.5 million people’s ability to have North Carolina… shrimp and other seafood.”

Marine Fisheries Commission member Allison Willis voted against the petition going forward and said she thinks the proposed regulations in the petition “went too far.”

“I think this is such a waste of the state’s resources,” she added. “This is extremely discouraging to me.”

According to Schill, the petition represents a trend he says raises major concerns for the future. “Bottom line? Science be damned and full steam ahead for special interest agendas that would decimate coastal North Carolina communities,” he said. “What the commission did was cause for continued worry for thousands of families and a huge waste of taxpayer resources.”

There are also concerns about how the proposed rules would interact with existing rules. Fisheries staffer Trish Murphy said the proposed regulations would affect not just shrimp trawling, but also other forms of trawling, such as flynet, flounder and crab trawling.