The fight over fish

Recreational fishermen are mobilizing behind a new proposal they say would protect stocks of three popular fish.

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Laura Leslie

Recreational fishermen are mobilizing behind a new proposal they say would protect stocks of three popular fish.

House Bill 353 would designate spotted sea trout, red drum, and striped bass as “coastal game fish,” which could only be caught using hooks and lines, and could not be bought or sold or exported from the state.

Recreational fishing groups including the Coastal Conservation Association say the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries has allowed commercial interests to overfish these species. They say the game fish designation in H353 will protect those stocks and help expand the state’s recreational fishing industry.

Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, is one of H353’s primary sponsors. He says he gets a lot of calls about it. “Those three fish are seriously in danger,” Glazier said. “And we’re the only state on the east coast that still allows commercial catch for Red Drum.”

The Division of Marine Fisheries isn’t in favor of the bill. Their statement, from spokeswoman Patricia Smith:

"The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries is concerned about House Bill 353, which would designate red drum, spotted seatrout and striped bass as state game fish. The division manages the state’s marine fisheries to provide opportunities for both commercial and recreational fishermen. It is neither necessary nor consistent with current law to designate these fish as game fish.

"Additionally, there is no biological evidence that declaring gamefish status will achieve sustainable harvest. Red drum, spotted seatrout 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."

The official catch numbers on the Division’s website seem to back that up.

For example, take red drum.  It’s classified by the DMF as “recovering” from overfishing. Recreational fishermen are limited to one per day, and it has to be between 18 and 27 inches long. Commercial fishermen can take up to 10 a day as “bycatch” as long as more than half their catch is some other type of fish.

Sounds like the commercial folks are taking more red drum, right? But actually, in 2009, commercial fisherman harvested about 194,000 lbs of red drum. Recreational fishermen landed about 358,000 lbs.

The commercial catch of red drum was higher from 1998-2000, which no doubt contributed to the fishery’s depletion. But even the highest commercial catch on record, about 373,000 lbs in 1999, was only 15,000 lbs over the recreational take in 2009.

The same is true for spotted sea trout, which is officially classified as “depleted.” Last November, the DMF lowered the bag limit for recreational fishermen from 10 per day to 6. The bycatch allowance for commercial fishermen is no more than 50 lbs a day. (In January, the DMF closed the fishery completely because of “cold stun” events that depleted the stock even more.)

In 2009, commercial fishermen caught about 320,000 lbs of spotted sea trout. Recreational fishermen took about 834,000 lbs – more than twice the commercial catch. In fact, no commercial catch has come close to that number in more than 30 years.

The striped bass situation is more complicated. The state has three “striper” fisheries. One, in the Central Southern Management Area, is listed as depleted. The others are considered healthy, but are subject to quotas under the fishery management plan.

The Coastal Conservation Association of NC says the DMF’s numbers don’t tell the whole story.

The CCA and other recreational fishermen are outraged by what they say are indiscriminate fish kills by commercial trawlers. They say they have video of trawlers killing thousands of striped bass in their nets, and tossing the ones that don’t meet regulation over the side of their boats – hundreds, maybe thousands, of dead fish.

After one incident in January, the Coastal Conservation Association tried to persuade the Marine Fisheries Commission to make the striper fishery hook-and-line only, but the Commission didn’t agree. House Bill 353 would put that change into law.

H353 was sent to House Commerce/Business and Labor. It could be heard next week.


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