Raleigh, N.C. — Commercial fishermen pleaded with lawmakers Monday to scuttle an effort to prevent them from catching three species of fish.
House Bill 983 hasn't been debated in any committee yet, but sponsors held a public hearing for interested legislators to hear from both sides of a hotly contested issue.
A similar bill to designate spotted sea trout, red drum and striped bass as “coastal game fish” never made it out of committee in the last legislative session, but co-sponsor Rep. Tom Murry, R-Wake, said Monday that it's only a matter of time until such a bill passes.
"Recreational fishermen will eventually get game-fish status," Murry said, adding that he wants his bill to be fair to commercial fishermen.
Under the bill, anything defined as a game fish can be caught only with hooks and lines, not fishing nets, and can't be bought or sold or exported from the state.
"Passage of this bill kills commercial fishing in this state," said Willie Phillips, who owns a fishing business in Tyrrell County. "It kills the independent and entrepreneurial businesses that are the foundation of our coastal economy and turns a proud industry into a sad legacy."
Numerous fishermen told lawmakers that the three species account for up to a third of their annual business, and making them off-limits would devastate their families and a generations-old way of life.
"How many nails does it take to nail the coffin shut?" asked Jeff Oden, a Hatteras Village businessman, who said the coastal economy has already suffered in recent years through tropical storms, disruptions to N.C. Highway 12 and federal limits to beach access on the Outer Banks.
Bill opponents called coastal fisheries a public trust resource and said they should benefit the whole state, not the 3 percent of the population who have recreational fishing licenses. Passage of the measure also would deprive consumers from buying spotted sea trout, red drum or striped bass in supermarkets or ordering them off a restaurant menu, they said.
"It smacks of taking fish from one sector to another," said Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners. "It's about jobs. In this legislature, we've heard for the last several years about economic stimulus and creating jobs. Let's not lose the jobs we have."
Proponents said, however, that designating the three fish as game fish would produce an economic boon for North Carolina, as anglers flock to the state for a chance to catch their limit.
"Commercial fishermen will still be able to sell 99.1 percent of saltwater fish," said Chuck Laughridge, a fisherman from Harkers Island. "We're talking about what's best for the state of North Carolina and what's best for the taxpayers."
To offset the loss of income, the bill would set aside $1 million to pay commercial fishermen. It also would add $1.3 million to the state Division of Marine Fisheries for its observer program, which helps determine how to manage stocks, and would use 0.5 percent of the state gas tax to dredge coastal channels for commercial fishing boats.
Seven other Southeast states have adopted similar game fish standards, bill backers say, and none has seen their commercial fishing industry collapse. Meanwhile, they blamed the Division of Marine Fisheries for allowing overfishing of spotted sea trout, red drum and striped bass.
"Marine fisheries is a limited, shrinking resource," recreational fisherman Tim Tovasso said, noting annual catches are down 80 percent from the early 1980s. "We have to do something different. ... This is about value. Where do these fish offer the greatest value?"
The division has opposed game fish designations, although no one from the agency spoke at Monday's hearing. Annual catch statistics from the division show recreational fishermen already account for the majority of the three fish landed in North Carolina.