Fishermen start petition against bill

North Carolina may have the Atlantic Ocean as its backyard, but commercial fisherman Samuel Bright said residents will find it harder to find fresh local fish at fish markets and restaurants if a bill now before the General Assembly passes.

“All North Carolina residents who enjoy their fresh local seafood need to pay attention and heed this bill,” he said.

The bill calls for designating red drum, spotted sea trout and striped bass as coastal game fish. If the bill passes, the fish could only be caught by hook and line and sale of the species would be prohibited.

It takes commercial fishermen out of the picture and those fish off the market.

“It’s not just a commercial and recreational (fishing issue). It’s the consumer that is going to lose their right and their access to those fish,” said Jean Merritt.

Merritt and her brother come from a commercial fishing family. From family-owned Bright’s Seafood in Jacksonville, a petition drive has begun as they spread the word about the bill they hope to see defeated.

When a similar bill came up in 2009, they collected 8,000 signatures from citizens around Onslow and surrounding counties in opposition and registered the petition with the speaker of the House.

“The average citizen of North Carolina does not want this,” Merritt said.

The North Carolina chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association sees the issue from a different perspective.

House Bill 353 was filed March 16 in the N.C. House of Representatives on behalf of CCA-NC, a nonprofit recreational fishing group with a mission of preserving and protecting marine resources.

The group sees the legislative action as its best recourse after unsuccessful efforts to have conservation measures addressed through the regulatory process.

CCA NC Executive Director Stephen Ammons said they have tried working through the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission to see that the species are managed properly.

“The majority of the MFC has made decisions based on a few commercial entities instead of the resource,” he said. “Our next step to keep the resource safe is to take it to the legislature.”

Response to a fish spill of striped bass in January may have been the “straw that broke the camel’s back” when it came to the CCA’s decision to introduce the bill, Ammons said.

The division was inundated with letters, emails and phone calls about thousands of dead fish discarded by striped bass trawlers. The division was able to confirm the release of 3,000 to 4,000 fish from an overloaded trawl net.

Many of the discarded fish were picked up by commercial and recreational fishermen, and 250 dead fish were on the water when Marine Patrol arrived.

Ammons was among a contingent of speakers at the MFC’s February meeting who asked for a closure of the striped bass trawl fishery. The MFC voted 6-2 to allow the fishery to re-open, under rule modifications to help prevent discard, so the remaining quota could caught.

An additional recommendation that the striped bass fishery be a commercial hook-and-line fishery is to be discussed later by the board.

“Everything is pretty much status quo. We felt this was the best way to make change,” Ammons said.

Giving the three species game fish status also recognizes the economic importance of recreational fishing to the state, he said.

Recreational fishing contributes $250 million or more annually to the North Carolina economy as anglers book charters, patronize bait shops to purchase fuel and other supplies and stay at local hotels.

Meanwhile, he said, the three fish make up only a small part of the commercial harvest.

“The commercial fishery for all three of the fish accounts for less than 2 percent of the commercial harvest in the state,” Ammons said.

That two percent is the livelihood of many commercial fishermen, said Merritt.

The three fish species may only be a small part of the state’s total commercial harvest each year, but individual fishermen don’t participate in every fishery.

“Around here they depend highly on speckled trout for four or five months out of the year to make a living,” Merritt said.

Speckled trout is also a top purchase at the fish house.

“Speckled trout is highly sought after and one of our top sellers. I can’t imagine what will happen if it’s off the shelf,” she said.

Taking that harvest away from the fishermen would be damaging and unfair, she said.

The same sentiment is being heard across coastal counties as various groups take a formal stand against the bill.

The Carteret County Board of Commissioners is among the counties that have adopted resolutions opposing the bill. Onslow County commissioners are expected to do the same.

“I believe we are in support of a resolution against the bill,” Onslow Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Paul Buchanan said.

While the item isn’t on Monday night’s agenda, Buchanan said the board can vote at the meeting to amend the agenda to add consideration of the resolution.

The Carteret resolution says the change to game fish status would be a violation of the Fisheries Reform Act and unfairly allocate 100 percent the resource to a specific group.

“Allocating 100 percent of the resource to less than 3 percent of the population of our state and to specific user groups would be a travesty of fairness, a violation of the Fisheries Reform Act and devastating to the economies of coastal communities,” the resolution states.

North Carolina is a leading producer of seafood with one of the most diverse fisheries in the United States and should be allowed to continue harvesting wild fish species for market, it states.

The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries has also noted its position against the bill, which it says is inconsistent with state law and wouldn’t necessarily achieve sustainable harvest for the fish stocks.

“The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries is concerned about House Bill 353, which would designate red drum, spotted sea trout and striped bass as state game fish. The division manages the state’s marine fisheries to provide opportunities for both commercial and recreational fishermen,” the division statement says. “It is neither necessary nor consistent with current law to designate these fish as game fish. Additionally, there is no biological evidence that declaring game fish status will achieve sustainable harvest. Red drum, spotted sea trout and striped bass are predominantly caught by recreational fishermen. Any needed harvest reduction strategies would need to focus as much on the recreational fishery as the commercial fishery to rebuild the stock.”

From 2005 to 2009, 72 percent of North Carolina’s harvest of all striped bass was from recreational fishing. Historically and currently, about 60 percent of the red drum harvested in the state each year is caught recreationally, according to DMF information.

From 2006 to 2008, 74 percent of spotted sea trout harvested in the state was recreationally caught.

HB 353 directs the Marine Fisheries Commission to make mitigation payments to commercial fishermen from the North Carolina Marine Resources Fund for the loss of the commercial fishery. The cap for payments is $1 million.

Specifically, it says mitigation payments for average annual income from the sale of the three fish over the period from 2008 to 2010, with annual payments to eligible commercial fishermen in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Eligible fishermen would also receive a payment in 2012 for the value of commercial fishing gear used in 2010 exclusively for the fish species.

According to a fiscal note that accompanies the bill, the average mitigation payment to each of the 1,114 participants in these three fisheries, assuming all would qualify, would be about $897 over the three years. The annual payment equates to about $299.

The compensation is little comfort to Bright, who says that $299 is no more than fuel for one fishing trip.

“That’s an insult,” he said.

If the bill passes, Bright fears it will set off a domino effect in efforts to eliminate all gill nets from North Carolina waters.

Merritt said that would essentially be a fatal blow to the commercial fishing, taking away a tool of the trade.

“Once they get this bill passed, it’s just a first step toward a total net ban and totally eliminating commercial fishing,” she said.

The opposition also notes that none of the primary sponsors of the bill come from the coast.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Darrell McCormick, R-Iredell; Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland; Rep. Dan Ingle, R-Alamance; and Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenberg.

Bill Would Limit Fishing For 3 Types of Fish In N.C.

Recreational and commercial fishermen are at odds over house bill 353, which calls for designating red drum, spotted sea trout and striped bass as coastal game fish.

Supporters of the bill say the aim is to preserve and protect marine resources. If the bill passes, the fish could only be caught by hook and line and sale of the species would be prohibited, taking commercial fishermen out of the picture and those fish off the market.

Onslow County commissioners signed a resolution opposing the bill and so far more than 400 people have signed a petition against it.

The North Carolina Coastal Conservation Association said this is not about taking these fish from consumers, but rather the best way to use them economically for North Carolina going forward.

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