January 11, 2012

Bill to reserve three species, including red drum,
for recreational anglers is back


Red drum, the official North Carolina saltwater fish, could soon be among three finfish that won’t be available to consumers in the state’s fish markets.

Whether that is bad or good is a question that has re-energized a spitting match between the state’s recreational and commercial fishing interests over conservation, livelihood and who should have access to the public resource.

Legislation introduced last session in the General Assembly that would designate striped bass, speckled trout and red drum exclusively as gamefish is now being reconsidered by the Marine Fisheries Study Committee, which had its first meeting last week.
The proposed bill, H 353, which died in committee last year, would prohibit the sale of the three fish and require they be caught by hook and line gear, not nets. It would also include compensation of “certain losses” for commercial fishermen.

Dare and Carteret counties oppose the measure, which is supported by the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, a nonprofit group that promotes sport fishing interests.

In promoting the bill, the CCA contends that a small number of watermen would be affected, and that limiting the three fish to recreational catch would attract more anglers to the state, creating more business for tackle shops, motels and other support industries.
“Instead of a fish bill, it’s turning into a jobs bill,” said Stephen Ammons, executive director of CCA North Carolina.

“We don’t want commercial fishermen to go out of business like everybody claims we do. But you’ve got to understand only three percent of the commercial catch is of those three fish."
 But the state Marine Fisheries Commission says the bill does not meet the standards of the 1997 Fisheries Reform Act, according to spokeswoman Nancy Fish.

“We try to manage for the benefit of all user groups,” she said.

Fish said that speckled sea trout -- of which 75 percent is harvested recreationally -- is overfished in some state waters. Red drum, also known as channel bass or puppy drum, is recovering, she said, and stocks of striped bass -- stripers or rockfish -- are healthy in Albemarle Sound, but there are areas of concern in the central and southern part of the state.

“They are certainly a public trust resource that belongs to all the citizens of North Carolina,” Fish said. “We’re stewards of that resource.”

State marine statistics from 2004-2009 show that 1,516,677 pounds of red drum were landed by recreational fishermen and 1,019,825 by commercial fishermen. Over that same period for striped bass, 12,396,132 pounds were landed recreationally and 3,317,936 commercially.

But the CCA contends that the Marine Fisheries Commission has not adequately protected the species, citing as an example the photographs of a large number of dead stripers that were all over the Internet last January. But Fish said that spill was the result of a split in a waterman’s net, and not any illegal activity.

A blog called the Coastal Fisheries Reform Group, identified only as a group of recreational fishermen, sponsors a piece titled, “North Carolina Striper Slaughter,” which pops up at the top of Internet page searches related to commercial fishing in the state. The blog includes a link to information about the gamefish bill, including a list and photographs of state legislators to contact.

The CCA says that the economic impact of sportfishing for those three species, factoring in such expenses as travel, motels, license fees, food and tackle,  is 150 times greater than the impact of commercial fishing . As such, the group contends, gamefish status would boost the economic impact of the fisheries for all the state’s citizens.

Ernie Foster, a second generation Hatteras waterman and charter vessel captain of the Albatross Fleet, doesn’t buy it. 

Commercial fishing, he said, also has economic multipliers, such as fishing gear and licenses and vessel costs that are not being counted.

“It’s just invented numbers that are thrown out to a public that doesn’t really care or understand,” Foster said, adding that protection of fish is a misnomer. “It’s not conservation; it’s allocation.”

The 77 North Carolina commercial fishermen that the CCA cites whose business would be affected is much too low, he said. In Hatteras alone there are more. Fishing by nature is opportunistic, he said. Depending on conditions, there may be more or less fish to catch at one location.

Foster said he is “appalled at the audacity” of the CCA, a private group, claiming rights to entire species, and can only guess at the motivation.

“The sophisticated answer,” he said, “is that they’re greedy bastards.”

Although Marine Fisheries says the three species comprise 2.6 percent of the state’s total commercial harvest, Foster said that total harvest includes shrimp and crabs, which are large fisheries in North Carolina.  He said that the three targeted species are a larger percentage of the total commercial harvest of finfish.

Foster said that it’s telling that the sponsors of the bill are from western or central counties in the state, where commercial fishermen are too often regarded as “knuckle dragging imbeciles.”

To Bill Hitchcock, co-host and producer of “Live and Local with Raeford and Bill” on WRHT in Jacksonville, the proposal is in direct opposition to the state’s effort to promote its fresh seafood, and it only encourages imports.

“Here we are in the confines of our very own state, wanting to put out of business our very own producers,” he said in a telephone interview. “North Carolina needs to get on the bandwagon recognizing the value of the seafood it has.”

Hitchcock, who is by default a recreational angler, said he has been out on hundreds of fishing trips, sport and commercial, over the course of his career, which included a stint with North Carolina Sea Grant as a Tag-A-Giant coordinator and as a TV producer of Coastal Carolina Fishing.

In the past 20 years, he said he has seen the CCA’s goal in the state evolve from elimination of commercial gear to elimination of commercial species.

“They want to make this a commercial-recreational fight,” he said. “It’s not. The commercial fisherman catches for the consumer. It is the consumer that reaps the benefit from the commercial fisherman.”

Consider the well-attended North Carolina Seafood Festival held annually in Morehead City. “It’s not the Recreational Fishing Festival,” Hitchcock said.  “And where does the seafood come from?”

Since watermen make their living fishing, Hitchcock said, it’s only logical they’ll be better stewards of the resource than someone who comes from out of town and hooks a fish for fun.

“The recreational angler doesn’t even know half the time what fish they’re catching,” he said.

According to a 2010 Marine Fisheries economic profile of seafood dealers, 72 percent of dealers’ seafood is sold to North Carolina buyers, including restaurants. In 2009, the report said, the estimated economic impact of seafood dealers statewide was $255 million. 

In a similar report that year, the economic impact of commercial fishing in the state was estimated at $259 million.  Another Marine Fisheries study in 2010 estimated the economic impact in the state of recreational fishing trips in 2008 at $1.6 billion.

 “I guarantee you, if gamefish status is given to these three fish,” Hitchcock said, “they’re not going to stop.”

But Ammons, who denied there are plans to designate additional gamefish species, said that speckled trout, red drum and stripers represent an insignificant loss to the commercial market. 

“I suggest any commercial guy get into farm-raised striped bass,” he said, “instead of pillaging the resource.”

Gamefish status would inspire more people to come to the state, Ammons said, fostering “world class” fisheries for the three species.

“Everybody wants to know how to make North Carolina better for their fishing,” he said. “They’re worth more to North Carolina as a recreational fishery.”


Following are excerpts from “A Social and Economic Survey of Recreational Saltwater Anglers in North Carolina.” The survey was conducted by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries in July, 2010. 

Issues of Concern among recreational fishermen and their ranking:
1. Water Quality / pollution
2. Keeping up with rules
3. Fuel prices
4. Finding enough time in my life to fish
5. Overfishing/too few fish
6. Weather
7. Access issues (lack of boat ramps, parking at the beach, etc)
8. Bag/size limits
9. Losing fishing piers
10. Competition with commercial fishermen

Species that are targeted by recreational fishermen and the percent who target them:

Inshore Species  % Offshore Species %
Flounder 83%   King Mackerel 39%
Spot  70% Dolphin/Mahi  39%
Spotted Sea Trout     69% Black Sea Bass  30%
Red Drum      62% Tuna 27%
Bluefish  61% Wahoo 27%
Croakers  60% Red Snapper  23%
Black Drum   49% Gag/Black Grouper  19%
Striped Bass    44% Amberjack  15%
Weakfish   43% Triggerfish  14%
Sea Mullet  42% Red Porgy  13%
Pompano  37% Vermillion Snapper  11%
Sheepshead   33% Grunts  9%
Cobia   21%

Of the 608 respondents in the survey, more than two-thirds reported annual household incomes greater than $50,000, and 25 percent had incomes of $100,000 or more. Nearly all (92 percent) were white, male (91 percent) and married (80 percent). Ranging from 19 to 84 in age, 40 percent were college-educated.

For more information
For more information, visit the Coastal Conservation of North Carolina Website at: http://www.ccanc.org/ and the North Carolina Fisheries Association at: http://www.ncfish.org/ , the Division of Marine Fisheries at http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mf/

View the proposed bill at the North Carolina General Assembly page: http://www.ncleg.net/gascripts/BillLookUp/BillLookUp.pl?Session=2011&BillID=h353

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