Balancing act

Published 2:02 am Friday, February 6, 2009

By Staff
We do not envy several state agencies and a federal one as they work toward a decision regarding the U.S. Highway 17 bypass project at Washington.
They’ll have to determine whether to keep a moratorium in place that would prevent pilings from being driven into the Tar River while fish migrate upriver to spawn.
There is a dilemma.
In an effort to protect those anadromous fish (fish that ascend rivers to reproduce), a four-month moratorium on construction “in the river” is scheduled to begin Feb. 15 and continue through June 15. That would stop the driving of pilings and other work now taking place in, on or above the river. Flatiron/United, the contractor building the bypass, is using a “top-down” method to build the 2.8-mile bridge that will span the river. Flatiron/United contends the moratorium would slow down the $192 million project.
Bypass project manager Mark Mallett said a “significant work force reduction” would occur if the moratorium is imposed, putting people out of work during a recession. Mallett also contends that lifting the moratorium would speed up the project, reduce the amount of time crews would work over the river and lessen the river’s exposure to potential environmental damage caused by the construction process.
Mallett also said crews are only driving pilings for several hours one day a week.
Those are some reasons why Flatiron/United requested the moratorium be lifted.
That’s a significant request.
The agencies involved in reviewing that request — the N.C. Division of Water Quality, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, N.C. Division of Coastal Management and the Army Corps of Engineers — have responsibilities when it comes to protecting populations of spawning fish such as herring, shad and menhaden. Twenty-five or more years ago, catching and canning herring was a big industry in eastern North Carolina.
Many folks in eastern North Carolina look forward to herring running in late winter and early spring. A crispy fried herring or two is hard to beat. That may be why herring have been overfished in recent years.
That’s why the moratorium is in place, to help protect the fish as they travel to their traditional spawning areas.
David Emmerling, executive director of the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation, says the moratorium is one way to help keep anadromous fish populations from declining.
The agencies face the difficult task of finding that balance between protecting migrating fish and slowing down what is currently the biggest highway project in the state, possibly putting some people out of work.
Some will argue the moratorium should be lifted because people are more important than fish. Others will argue the moratorium should stand because protecting and increasing those fish populations means people such as commercial fishermen will be able to make a living by catching and selling those fish. People need work, but fish need to reproduce.
Those are valid points that should be considered before a decision is reached.
Perhaps a compromise is the solution, a compromise that allows a limited amount of work to be done during the spawning season.
That way, construction workers will be able to feed their offspring and the fish will be able to produce offspring.