By all accounts, the bill introduced in the state House of Representatives last month that would give game fish status to red drum and spotted sea trout is dead in the water.
The bill, H918, Designation of Coastal Game Fish, would make these two popular species of fish off limits to commercial fishermen and would reserve them for recreational anglers only.
Introduced March 31, the bill was referred to the House Marine Resources and Aquaculture Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Tim Spear, a Democrat whose district includes Dare and Hyde counties.
Spear has become an impressive advocate for the coastal counties he represents and has also supported the commercial fishing industry in those counties.
Sen. Marc Basnight, President Pro Tempore of the state Senate and a Manteo Democrat whose district also includes Dare and Hyde counties, has been a supporter of commercial fishermen for years.
?Senator Basnight understands the importance of both the recreational and commercial fisheries,? his office said last week. ?For one user group to have all of the chips is not the intent of the Fisheries Reform Act.?
So legislators such as Basnight and Spear may be able to head off the recreational fishing lobby in this session of the General Assembly.
However, as Susan West wrote in The Island Free Press on May 6, the fight is not over. Even if the bill goes nowhere in the session, it will be back.
Thus, I thought you should read an exchange I recently had with Dean Phillips, a Topsail Island businessman active in the Coastal Fisheries Reform Group, the recreational fishing organization that lined up legislative sponsors for the bill and has been pushing the bill aggressively in the recreational fishing community.
I have blogged on this topic before (Killing fish for fun instead of food, April 8) and was interested in the boldness of Phillips? claims that red drum and spotted sea trout are important to North Carolina only as game fish, reserved for recreational anglers.
I e-mailed him some questions and he sent back very detailed answers and invited me to publish ?every bit of it.?
And that?s what I am going to do because I think it is important that those on both sides of the issue understand what recreational fishing groups would like to do to the state?s commercial fishermen.
This exchange is unedited and it?s lengthy, but I guarantee you will find it extremely interesting.
Remember this issue is not going away.
QUESTIONS TO DEAN PHILLIPS OF THE COASTAL FISHERIES REFORM GROUP AND HIS ANSWERS
QUESTION: I am interested in more information from your group on where you got your statistics. Of course, landings are on the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries Web site. However, I am having trouble finding out how you can tell that spotted sea trout caught by commercial fisherman is worth a certain amount and caught by recreational fishermen is worth so much more. Same with red drum.
ANSWER: All the data we have published has come from the NCDMF and has been verified by their statisticians. We used their numbers and theirs alone. I have spent months evaluating both the recreational landings data as well as the commercial data too. The DMF publishes those numbers and most anyone can find that, as I am sure that you have.
The DMF also keeps significant information and statistics on ?trips? for specific species like flounder, spotted sea trout, red drum, etc. The DMF conducts about 20,000 surveys annually that are done in the field or on the water. In addition to this data, they use ?phone survey? data that is supplied to them by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). In the field they actually weigh fish caught by recreational fishermen, in addition to counting actual numbers harvested. By using all this data they come up with a really good estimate of how many pounds of fish recreational fishermen catch, how many trips they take in pursuit of certain fish, and success ratios of those trips. We took numbers of trips, divided the number of pounds harvested, and came up with averages that the DMF says are accurate. It really is pretty simple math.
Here is an example — in 2007, the recreational fishermen took 451,441 trips in pursuit of the spotted sea trout. That same year the recreational fishermen harvested 961,167 pounds of trout. Now to find the average amount of trout harvested per trip, all you have to do is divide the number of pounds by the number of trips. You come out with 2.1 pounds per trip! Now that statistic is not published in any of the DMF documents, but simple math provided the answer! We ran these numbers by the DMF personnel and they agreed they were accurate.
QUESTION: I guess the additional value of fish caught by recreational fishermen includes their lodging and meals and cost of their charters while they are here?
ANSWER: The additional values or ?end values? were derived from the document entitled ?Speck Socioeconomics? that was recently distributed by the DMF for the spotted sea trout FMP that was just postponed due to lack of funding. All the ?values? we used came directly from that publication. It was authored by Scott Crosson of the DMF. Here is where we had to make a decision.
Irene, most recreational fishermen do not really believe that they as a group harvest more spotted sea trout than the N.C. commercial fishermen do. That is just a common opinion. But what do you do? We could argue till we are blue in the face that the statistics are wrong, and where would that get us? We were invited to the DMF headquarters for a four-hour meeting to discuss this very subject and see how this data is collected and subsequently presented. After seeing how this data is collected and calculated, the CFRG believes that the recreational data is very accurate. The commercial fishing community enjoys pointing out that we catch three pounds to their one. So we have to decide right now, are we going to trust all the DMF numbers, or just the ones that help our argument?
I am asking you this question because neither of us can have it both ways. We both have to agree to debate this issue with the DMF stats and the DMF stats alone, or then if not, how can you have a fair and equitable debate? We have decided to use the DMF stats for the basis for our debate, and those that disagree with us must do the same. If not, then where do your numbers come from? Agreed? So from this point forward, the DMF stats are the rule, OK?
Now to answer the question about how the value of a pound of trout is calculated. The fish-house average value of a pound of trout in 2007 was $1.40, but after it was sold, it was processed, transported, handled, gas was purchased, help was paid, etc, and the ?end value? to your community was $11.09 per pound. Again we simply divided the commercially harvested pounds (374,708) into the total ?end value? of $4,155,256, and you come up with the $11.09 per pound. The same document says that the ?end value? of the recreational efforts in 2007 for spotted sea trout was $40,636,505. Again, divide by the pounds harvested of 961,167, and the end value per pound is $42.28. Now this number represents pure expenses since the recreational fisherman does not sell his fish. This is money spent on gear, gas, food, lodging, etc.
Keep in mind, this is directly from the DMF. We just broke it down with simple math. If anyone thinks these numbers are off, then go argue till you are blue in the face like we decided not to do ourselves! I would suggest that you request a copy of this document from the DMF.
QUESTION: Since commercial fisherman land so many fewer pounds of spotted sea trout and red drum, why does the Coastal Fisheries Reform Group want to close them out of the fishery? Recreational fishermen catch many more pounds. Why are they/you not satisfied with that? What does it matter if commercial guys catch what you describe as their “meager” amount to support their families?
ANSWER: Irene, this situation is a lot more complicated than us trying to take something from them. Times are changing. These two fish are the most sought after sportfish in our coastal waters now by recreational fishermen. Remember the trips I talked about earlier? Well, with the increase of the North Carolina population and the immigration of the retiring baby-boomers coming here to be near the water, the trips are just going to increase more and more each year. For example, in 2004 the trips for spotted sea trout were 260,647. By 2007, that number had grown to 451,441 trips, almost doubled in four years. All indicators say this trend will continue. Now here?s the kicker. Most of the commercial effort for this fish occurs in the fall and winter when these fish migrate into coastal and inland creeks for winter sanctuary. It used to be a place where recreational fishermen tried to tease these fish into biting a lure, and anyone who fishes for speckled trout can tell you that they can be down-right finicky! With this new and more effective method of netting called strike-netting, a lethargic school of wintering trout in these relatively narrow creeks is encircled by a gill net and the circle is tightened, and the fish are spooked into the net, in many instances, catching the whole school of fish! Keep in mind that a recreational fisherman is watching this happen. Emotions run high, and much of this is happening in areas not much wider than a city street.
Irene, something has to be done to end this conflict. I use this illustration; ?This is like throwing a cat and a dog in a closet and hope everything turns out OK.?
This is the very reason that either both or one of these fish are game fish or no gill nets are allowed, or a combination of all three in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas! If H918 pays the commercial fisherman the same thing he was getting paid for these fish, and all these conflicts are solved, is that a bad idea?
QUESTION: Do you think it is right and just that only folks who are able to fish recreationally or can afford to should have access to these two species? As I understand it, the species would no longer be available to consumers in restaurants or markets if your bill passes.
ANSWER: Irene, I live on the coast. I ate at two different mom-and-pop restaurants this past week and both of them had the petition at the cash register about stopping House Bill 918. Neither fish was on the menu, and I asked them if they ever served these two fish. The answer was ?NO.? Now I know there are probably some restaurants out there on the OBX that serve these fish ?in season.? But statewide this is simply not the case, and most of these fish are not consumed here in North Carolina. I suspect that you yourself would find it hard to get verifiable documentation just exactly where all these trout are shipped to once they leave the fish house. That would be a good project for an investigative reporter.
So the answer is no, wild caught red drum and spotted sea trout would not be available at the fish market or in a North Carolina restaurant if House Bill 918 passes.
My question to you is this: How many people would be negatively impacted by not being able to purchase a speckled trout or a red drum? There are many other fish available, and many other much less expensive sources of protein. And as far as public trust waters go, there is no document anywhere, whether federal or state, that guarantees any person or any group of people the right to ?eat? any certain ?specific species of fish,? or any animal for that matter. White-tailed deer are abundant on state and federal property. Does that guarantee you the right to eat one or have one at the market? All wild game laws are strategically designed and structured measures of ?allocation.?
QUESTION: It seems to me that issue is not just about what fishermen can make if they fish commercially or recreationally. What about the public’s access to a public resource — the fish in our oceans and sounds?
ANSWER: Irene, we believe that our position on this is a centrist position. If this ?public? that you feel would be angry if denied the ability to eat or buy a speckled trout or a red drum was brought into this picture, do you know what they would want? The general public out there would love to see a ?total gill net ban.? All you have to do is look not too far to the south of here to see it. No gill nets in coastal waters from here all the way around Florida to Mississippi! Then pick back up with Louisiana and Texas. So right now from here to Mexico, the only coastal gill nets are in Mississippi, and I wouldn?t count on them being there too much longer.
Is that what you want here? If H918 does not pass or is killed in committee, then you will see who the commercial fisherman?s worst nightmare is, and it isn?t us! Those little old ladies in tennis shoes with their hurt sea turtles and dead harbor seals make me look like a Sunday school boy! Trust me, if we can?t work this out for the common good of all of us, there is a growing storm out there against gill nets, and that is not what we are about. I believe that H918 would resolve most of the user conflict and take the steam away from this other group.
Just remember that we tried to find some middle ground here. Is six-tenths percent of total seafood harvest worth it? I say it is a better solution than a total net ban! Go to www.nomoregillnets.org to see what I mean.
QUESTION: Does your group give no credence to the effort and the right of commercial fishermen to make a living on the sea? It is a matter of history and heritage.
ANSWER: I completely understand the history and heritage, but what we are finding out, Irene, is that even though the sea looks never ending, the resources in it can be damaged and depleted. Does history and heritage give anyone a right to deplete any natural resource? Many folks across this country are being forced to change. Ask your friends that are commercial fishermen today. Ask them if they think change is on the horizon. The commercial fishing industry completely destroyed the gray trout (weakfish). In the year 1980, commercial fishermen took to market over 20 million pounds of these beautiful fish for 19 cents per pound. Between 1978 and 1989, they harvested almost 160 million pounds of these fish.
Now they are gone! Is this the history and heritage you are talking about? Did you know the southern flounder is ?depleted?? Did you know the lowly spot is in a state of concern? Did you ever think you would live to see that?
QUESTION: I could not confirm online the statistics you quote about the number of recreational fishing guides increasing by 400 percent in Texas. Could it be that recreational guides have increased in numbers because their commercial fishing opportunities are so limited?
ANSWER: Every state that has made this move still has thriving seafood industries. The 400 percent increase in guide numbers came directly from the Director of Science and Policy with the Texas Marine Fisheries Division, Robin Riechers. His actual quote was the number had ?quadrupled.?
These are two e-mails that were sent out after Rep. Tim Spear?s hearing on H918, Designation of Coast Game Fish Status.
This is from an update e-mailed by Sean McKeon, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, a commercial fishing trade organization.
Dare County Commissioner Mike Johnson spoke against the bill as did Sean McKeon from NCFA reminding the committee members that putting this bill forward without the customary process was a violation of the law established by the legislature when they passed the Fisheries Reform Act over a decade ago. Director (Louis) Daniel, (director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries) did an outstanding job of taking every claim made by the Coastal Fisheries Reform Group and ripping it to shreds. First he informed the committee members that the group?s petition was denied on technical grounds and that the Commission got back to them the next day as to how to fix it, not a month later as they claimed and as they led members of the committee to believe. Next, Dr. Daniel said there was not one biological reason to pass this bill and that game fish status would do nothing to improve the health of the stocks; it would merely allow one group to continue harvesting fish. The claims of increasing revenues to the state and increasing recreational harvest if the commercials were kicked out were shown to be patent lies. For example, Dr. Daniel pointed out that North Carolina ranked second in recreational harvest of redfish, ?ahead of South Carolina which has a net ban, game fish status, and a hatchery.? His point; states that have already done what this bill was trying to do have seen none of the claims made by this group come true. North Carolina ranks No. 1 on the coast in recreational harvest of spotted sea trout, and in North Carolina the recreational harvest is at least 75 percent of the harvest, according to statistics cited by Daniel. He said that the bulk of the mortality problems in that fishery are recreationally caused and need to be addressed. It was not a good day for this fledging group.
This is the response that Dean Phillips of the Coastal Fisheries Reform Group wrote to me and to Susan West after the hearing:
I wanted to stay in touch with you ladies because even though I know you disagree with the game fish issue, I sensed your character of true journalism and the need for ?fair play? and the honor of true debate. Unfortunately, those qualities are missing from many folks today.
I fear that we will have no such fair debate on H918 in any type of public forum any time soon. Although I felt the way it was structured (with no mention of mitigation or the hint of a gill-net ban), it was dismissed as ?elitist? and greedy far too soon. We did have a ?discussion? if you would call it that in Rep. Spear?s committee, but trust me ladies, it was a token event. I was only allowed to speak for three minutes, and truly, it wasn?t even three minutes. I was interrupted twice by a member of the committee who was questioning the structure of the debate.
I was prepared for five minutes, only got two or two and a half at best. Then Dr. Daniel who opposes game fish status was given the floor for the remainder of the meeting and he spoke for at least 10 or 15 minutes. No rebuttal time for us, no questions for us, that was it.
So that, I suppose, was the hearing for H918.