April 28, 2010

County’s leaders and working watermen get an update on fisheries issues


Fishermen and county commissioners exchanged information with state officials about a host of fisheries issues at the Dare County Commission for Working Watermen meeting April 21.

State officials attending the meeting included North Carolina Rep. Tim Spear, Division of Marine Fisheries director Louis Daniel, and Wildlife Resources Commission director Gordon Myers.  Chris Dillon, special projects director for Senator Marc Basnight, also participated.

In a report on issues affecting Dare County, state fisheries chief Louis Daniel said his agency fully supports the South Atlantic Council minority report objecting to Amendment 17B to the Snapper-Grouper Fishery Management Plan that was approved by the council majority in December.

If approved by the US Secretary of Commerce, the amendment would close waters from 240 feet depth seaward to 200 miles offshore to bottom fishing.

The minority report said the measure is “overly draconian to protect two species of fish for which there are no valid stock assessments” and noted that the lack of information could result in a perpetual closure.

“The amendment closes waters because of two species, speckled hind and warsaw grouper, that we don’t even catch,” said commercial fisherman Dewey Hemilright, who fishes out of Wanchese.

Daniel described the pending economic impact on North Carolina as “significant,” pointing to the loss of the blueline tilefish fishery north of Cape Hatteras and the loss of the tightly-managed snowy grouper fishery.

The minority report was signed by five council members, including N.C. appointees Brian Cheuvront and Rita Merritt, and faulted the deadlines for stock rebuilding set in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act for precluding further analysis.

Legislation allowing the federal councils some flexibility in meeting stock recovery deadlines has been introduced by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. 

“With the rigid interpretation of Magnuson and without flexibility, the councils will have to close more fisheries,” Daniel cautioned. 

The watermen and officials also talked about how striped bass harvest quotas in the sound and in the ocean have not been reached by commercial fishermen.

Daniel said only about 60 percent of the ocean quota was landed this winter.

“That was about three-quarter to one million dollars left swimming out there,” explained Hemilright.

He said the fish stayed in the Exclusive Economic Zone, three to 200 hundred miles offshore, where harvest is prohibited.

Daniel updated the Commission for Working Watermen on ongoing efforts at the state fisheries agency to provide more opportunities for commercial fishermen.

Those efforts include studying ways to open bay scallop harvest grounds faster, authorizing the use of hook-and-line by commercial fishermen, and studying the feasibility of flounder traps.

The agency is looking for commercial fishermen to test flounder traps in various bodies of water.

Daniel reported that there is interest in shortening the management plan approval process by eliminating review by the Joint Legislative Commission on Seafood and Aquaculture.  He said that review can add as much as one year to the implementation process.
Mikey Daniels, state marine fisheries commissioner and Working Watermen committee member, said the state commission has to move quickly on some issues.

But, Chris Dillon, Basnight’s aide, said eliminating legislative review could be a double-edged sword, reducing input and oversight on highly controversial issues.

Daniel noted that he would continue to work with the regional Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission on developing alternatives to a 100-pound weakfish trip limit that would result in discards of weakfish.

The state Marine Fisheries Commission voted in March not to comply with the 100-pound limit because of the high number of weakfish that would have to be thrown back into the sea.

Sean McKeon, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, said Friday that he believed Daniel would propose something like a bycatch allowance that prevented a targeted fishery but allowed fishermen to retain a percentage of weakfish relative to the total pounds of all species caught on a trip.

McKeon said that while his organization does not support bycatch fisheries, it could support this as a temporary measure until a better solution can be worked out should weakfish become more abundant. 

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