September 29, 2016

Guest Column:
A letter to fishermen from Marine Fisheries director

(This column is a letter that Braxton Davis, director of the North Carolina Marine Fisheries, wrote to Melba Milak, executive secretary of North Carolina Watermen United, after a public meeting on the state's fisheries last month in Manteo.  The letter was shared with Island Free Press by N.C. Watermen United.)

I would like to thank N.C. Watermen United, especially Britton Shackelford, Melba Milak, and Kathy Sparrow, for the invitation to the public meeting in Manteo last month. I know that this kind of meeting requires a lot of planning and coordination. I also appreciate so many people taking the time to come to the meeting. It was a great opportunity for me to meet with fishermen and community leaders, and I learned a great deal from the comments and discussion.

I am continuing to work on the issues and concerns that were raised. Below, I've put together some information regarding questions discussed at the meeting. These topics can be complicated, and while I'm sure there will be follow-up questions, I hope this will provide a starting point for continuing discussions and improved communications going forward.

1) Questions related to the Southern Flounder Supplement

Supplement A to Amendment 1 of N.C. Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan, which was enacted by the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission in November 2015, contained various management measures intended to reduce the annual catch and rebuild the spawning stock. I heard many concerns about these new regulations at the meeting in Manteo. While the Supplement is in place, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries is working with several other Southeastern states on a regional stock assessment for southern flounder. Staff have held two meetings to review available data and research and discuss modeling approaches. A draft of the assessment is expected to be completed and ready for peer review by September 2017.

Last month, the Marine Fisheries Commission, with our full support, passed a motion that requires the division to begin an update of the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan as soon as a valid stock assessment is available. This is a very thorough and deliberative process, including advisory committee and public input, as well as departmental and legislative review. This will also provide an opportunity to reevaluate management measures and how they affect different fishing activities; for example, how the amended plan should take into account reduced landings resulting from early Incidental Take Permit closures.

2) Sea Turtle and Sturgeon Incidental Take Permits

I have heard the concerns of commercial fishermen about Incidental Take Permits (ITPs) very clearly. Over the past two months, we have met several times with industry representatives regarding concerns over the ITPs and the resulting gill net closures and restrictions. We are encouraging commercial fishermen to provide feedback on these issues through N.C. Watermen United and the N.C. Fisheries Association, which held two meetings in late August on this topic in Wanchese and Morehead City. Fishermen shared their thoughts on the timing and locations for reopening areas that were closed to large mesh gill nets due to sea turtle interactions, fishing practices that minimize sea turtle interactions, ITP management measures that do not appear to be effective (for example, the 15-mesh height for large mesh gill nets was mentioned several times), and recommended potential changes to the ITPs. Fishermen have also raised questions about the federal Endangered Species Act, and division staff have forwarded these to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for responses.

The division used input we received at these meetings to determine how to reopen areas to large mesh gill nets this fall, and we are currently compiling the feedback obtained regarding potential changes to the ITPs. We are continuing to work with the commercial fishing industry and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on management under the current ITPs, as well as potential changes to the ITPs.

3) Concerns about the Marine Recreational Information Program

The North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation requiring a Coastal Recreational Fishing License in 2007. During the first year, nearly 500,000 licenses were sold. In addition, nearly 250,000 individuals that were holding lifetime inland fishing licenses were grandfathered with coastal recreational fishing privileges. Inclusion of anglers exempted from purchasing a license, such as pier anglers and for-hire anglers, increases the total number of coastal recreational anglers to more than one million. By our estimates, these anglers accounted for more than six million fishing trips during 2015.

With the large number of recreational fishermen, the division must rely on surveys to estimate fishing efforts and catch. However, the division began to realize in the 1980s that federal surveys (the Marine Recreational Information Program, or MRIP, and previously the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey) could not be relied upon to collect data at the state scale that appropriately represents our recreational fisheries.

For that reason, in 1987, the division began financially supporting MRIP so that we could improve our recreational data at both the regional and state levels. The division assumed the responsibilities of conducting the angler interviews and hired additional staff to bolster sampling. In fact, North Carolina contributes a larger percentage of support to MRIP than any other state along the East Coast. That said, we recognize that concerns remain about the quality of the data.
Frequently, we receive questions regarding MRIP methodology and sample sizes. The division has a goal of conducting 20,000 angler interviews annually. Survey methodologies and catch estimates are complicated and can be difficult to fully understand. Several independent reviews, including a recent review by the National Research Council, have been conducted and adjustments have been made to ensure MRIP is taking full advantage of any new technologies and improvements in statistical survey design. A comment was also made at the meeting about a growing problem of anglers refusing to be interviewed. To put this into perspective, refusals have historically amounted to less than 3 percent of survey respondents, including those among private boats, beach and bank fisheries, piers, and for-hire fisheries. In addition, North Carolina law requires all license holders to comply with survey programs of the Marine Fisheries Commission and division (see N.C. General Statutes 113-174.1(g)).

I place a high value on quality data collection and sound science as the key to successful fisheries management. I will continue investigating ways to improve data collection, because I believe it is impossible to manage fisheries and evaluate management efforts without knowing how many fish are harvested by all parties. Technology is advancing at a rapid pace, and I believe this offers a great deal of promise for improvements in recreational fishing data collection in the future.

4) Navigation Concerns for Hatteras Inlet

The Division of Coastal Management (DCM) is well aware of the navigation challenges and dangerous conditions at Hatteras Inlet, and the importance of the inlet to both commercial and recreational navigation. We have been in close coordination with Dare County officials, and our staff held a permit scoping meeting in August for dredging operations in Hatteras Inlet. An engineering firm hired by Dare County is now working on federally-required environmental documents for the connector section on the Hyde County/Ocracoke side of the inlet. Unfortunately, because this is not a federal channel, no prior environmental documents have been prepared for dredging this side of the inlet. The engineering firm anticipates having all of these environmental documents completed by January 2017, at which time they intend to apply for our state Coastal Area Management Act permit. This is a top priority for DCM and we intend to complete our permit review within 30-45 days of receiving the application.

Again, I want to thank you for participating in the meeting in Manteo. I look forward to continuing to work together to improve communication and cooperation on important coastal and marine fisheries issues for North Carolina.

Braxton C. Davis, Director N.C. Divisions of Marine Fisheries and Coastal Management Department of Environmental Quality

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