January 14, 2008

DMF and fishermen discuss sea turtle captures in flounder gill nets


Fisheries biologist Blake Price of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) met with commercial fishermen at the Fessenden Center in Buxton on Thursday, Jan. 10, to discuss ways to reduce the accidental capture of sea turtles in flounder gill nets in Pamlico Sound.

Price said that while he doesn’t anticipate any changes in the management of flounder gill nets for the 2008 season, fishermen could see the fishing season cut short again if too many turtles are captured in their nets.  

In 2007, DMF closed the fishery on Nov.15 when interactions between green sea turtles and gill nets exceeded the number of non-lethal captures authorized by the federal government.  

“That was the first year since 2001 that we’ve had to close the fishery early,” Price said.

He noted that sea turtle populations appear to have changed since 2002 through 2004, the years used as the basis for current management.

“We’re seeing three times as many sea turtles as we’ve ever seen in the sound,” Price said.

“Maybe then we should be celebrating that the conservation measures of the last five years have worked rather than making changes for no reason,” said fisherman Buddy O’Neal of Avon.

But Price said scientists don’t know the turtle population size.

“It’s not like counting marbles in a jar,” he said.

Price noted that until 2007, the accidental capture of sea turtles in flounder gill nets in Pamlico Sound didn’t reach 50 percent of the number allowed by the federal government.

“Conditions were different in 2007,” explained fisherman Asa Gray from Rodanthe.  “We had an extremely dry season and higher water temperatures later into the year.”

During the meeting, Price and the fishermen discussed gear modifications, such as requiring low-profile nets or banning tie-downs.

“I really don’t think there is a brand new mousetrap that will always catch flounder and never catch turtles though,” Price said.

He said he believed that limits on the length of nets might reduce interactions with turtles.

“I’m encouraging you all to fish smartly and professionally and try to minimize interactions every day,” he said.

Flounder fishermen using gill nets in Pamlico Sound have worked under a complex package of regulations following a surge in turtle strandings in 1999.  National Marine Fisheries Service reacted to the strandings with a ban on gill nets with a mesh size greater than five inches in a large portion of the sound.

The federal agency’s authority to close state waters comes under the Endangered Species Act.  Endangered or threatened species include green turtles, loggerheads, Kemp’s Ridleys, leatherbacks and hawksbills.

While deep water areas in the sound remain closed to flounder gill nets, the fishery in shallow waters has been managed by DMF since 2000 under Endangered Species Act Section 10 Permits, designed to reduce strandings and minimize interactions between fishing gear and turtles.  The current permit was issued in 2005 and runs until 2010.

Fishermen obtain a special fishing permit from DMF to participate in the fishery.  The permit specifies gear restrictions and reporting and observer coverage requirements.

Price said the number of permits issued annually to fishermen has decreased from 170 to 135.  He noted that only around 60 permits are used in any one week.

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