May 19, 2010

Marine Fisheries and sea turtle center settle lawsuit

State fisheries officials approved new gill net restrictions on Thursday, April 13, that settle a lawsuit filed by the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in February.

The lawsuit had sought a ban on the use of all gill nets in state waters, charging that state officials violated the federal Endangered Species Act by allowing the use of fishing nets that could accidentally capture sea turtle species given special protection under the act.  

Rob Bizzell, chairman of the state Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC), said the new rules are not a ban but would result in a significant reduction in the amount of gill net gear used in North Carolina, reducing the risk of turtle captures.  

The new regulations went into effect Saturday, April 15, and apply year-round to all gill nets with a mesh size between 4 and 6 1/2 inches that are fished as set nets in internal coastal waters, with the exception of Albemarle and Currituck Sounds. The rules also will not apply in the Pamlico Sound Gill Net Restricted Area, an area in the southeastern Pamlico Sound where large mesh flounder gill nets have been managed under a special permit since 2000, during the September to December 2010 season.

The rules do not apply to run-around, strike, or drop nets.

The regulations restrict sets to weeknights, limit total yardage to 2,000 yards or less, limit shots to 100 yards with 25-yard spacing, restrict net height, require lead core or leaded bottom lines, and prohibit most floats and buoys.

“Fishermen will be hammered right smart by these regulations,” said MFC member Bradley Styron from his Cedar Island home Saturday.

He speculated that some fishermen are likely to quit the fishery altogether.

But Styron said the rules, approved unanimously by the MFC Thursday, were the only option that emerged during negotiations with the Beasley Center that would allow fishermen to continue to use gill nets.

He said Jean Beasley, executive director of the center, worked hard to help craft a solution that would allow fishing while also protecting turtles.

The settlement also requires expanded observer coverage on fishing boats and creation of a permanent sea turtle advisory committee.

Styron cautioned that the gill net rules could be strengthened at any time and said it was still unclear whether the new regulations would satisfy federal requirements for an Endangered Species Act Section 10 Permit.  Without the permit, any capture of turtles in fishing nets in the state is illegal, even if the turtles are released alive and unharmed.

“This isn’t an issue that is going to disappear.  We need to figure out innovative ways to work with turtle populations that are increasing,” Styron said.

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