Tar Heel State sportsmen want gamefish status

Gamefish status for redfish, speckled trout, and stripers would seem like a no-brainer for anyone outside of the commercial fishing industry. But in North Carolina, even mentioning such an unholy thought could get a gun drawn on you. This spring sights are set on House Bill 353, a state measure that would effectively ban gillnetting for, and commercial sale of, these fish.

For many recreational fishermen in the Tarheel State, the fact that such a bill was even brought before the legislature was a coup, considering they’ve waited for 20 years as every other state from here to Texas (except Mississippi) has enacted gamefish status and/or banned targeted gillnetting for these species.

Recreational fishermen have run into a wall—the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF)—every time they’ve tried to protect the resource. Ironically, the charter of the DMF, which does the Marine Fisheries Commission’s (MFC) bidding, is to manage the fisheries for all user groups. But its actions back the commercial industry more often than not.

Case in point: Although the DMF supported a ban on targeted gillnetting for redfish, it allowed a bycatch that can be sold at market with an annual cap of 250,000 pounds. As the bycatch rose from seven to 10 fish last year, the bag limit for recreational fishermen stayed at one fish in the 18- 27-inch slot. Same goes for 2011, when the DMF closed the recreational speck fishery from January to June because of cold stun events, but allowed commercials to continue to harvest up to 50 pounds of fish from February to June.

There are a couple of other stark ironies that are mind-boggling to anyone outside of the commercial industry. First, commercials claim that gamefish status would transfer ownership of the resource from the masses that buy seafood to a “small, select group of elitists.” They also claim the bill would put hard-working fishermen out of business.

Some state and federal stats put those ironies in perspective:

  • Redfish, specks, and stripers together accounted for less than two percent of the total commercial harvest in NC for the past 10 years, according to annual commercial landings data reported by NC DMF.
  • But because of the commercial harvest ban in all states but NC, and a small amount in Mississippi and Georgia (hook and line only), NC provides 90 percent of the total commercially harvested redfish for the nation, according to DMF and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) figures. This includes blackened redfish in southern states where the fish has gamefish status.
  • NOAA recreational landings statistics for 2010 put the Tarheel State dead last in recreational harvest in seven states, from NC (281,587) to Louisiana (11.2 million pounds).
  • Commercial harvest of the three species was more than $88 million in 2010 revenues, while the total economic impact of recreational fishing on the state is estimated at $1.6 billion, not including an additional estimated $1.2 billion in durable goods (boats, gear, etc.).

So how would such a law transfer “ownership” of the resource to an “elite few” (more than 800,000 licensed recreational fishermen, per DMF) from the masses, when the masses could get aquaculture-raised red drum and stripers or wild stripers and specks (from other states) at the seafood store or in restaurants anyway? North Carolina produced 1.3 million pounds of farmed hybrid striped bass alone in 2008.

And how would this bill put fishermen out of business when these three fish account for less than two percent of the total commercial haul, and only 87 of the 5,179 licensed commercial fishermen had $2,000 or more in landings of all three species in 2010 (according to an North Carolina DMF survey)? Besides, the bill calls for the state to reimburse commercials demonstrating losses from the ban.

DMF’s support for the commercial industry re-emerged in February, when Louis Daniel, the politically appointed director of Marine Fisheries, told a legislative sub-committee during a public hearing, “This bill is inconsistent with the Fisheries Reform Act, because it favors one user group over another.”

Optimistically, the bill has a 50-50 shot this year. The North Carolina legislature has a short session and has to focus on issues like paying for everything. Plus, a cadre of state senators representing the Outer Banks (commercial’s backyard) is so strongly opposed to HB 353 that others may not spend the political capital to support it.

There are a couple of other fronts that could help the recreational cause. First, the bill has at least raised the issue’s visibility for the next session. [If it dies this year]. Second, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) just listed Atlantic sturgeon as endangered. If a sturgeon gets caught in a net before DMF can file an incidental-take permit (which could take a year), NMFS could shut down the fishery.

Third, there’s been a push to merge DMF with the state’s Wildlife Resources Commission, eliminating the politics of the MFC and the DMF. Finally, the Coastal Fisheries Reform Group, which launched the first gamefish bill four years ago, plans to initiate a move to ban all nets in North Carolina waters regardless of the outcome of HB 353.

Does gamefish status help the fishery? Just ask Harry Blanchet, director of Marine Fisheries Section of Louisiana Fish and Wildlife, which reported more than 11 million pounds of recreational redfish harvested in 2010 despite two disasters since 2005.

“If you take the nets out of the water, it lets there be more fish in the water for others. When we eliminated the commercial harvest [in 1988], the recreational harvest increased. Average size increased. We have more anglers taking more trips with better equipment.”

Perhaps North Carolina fishing guide and shop owner Chris Medlin best stated the biggest irony during February’s public hearing: “Anglers are leaving our state to catch our state fish.”