The controversial gamefish bill that would have made three species of wild-caught fish unavailable to watermen and consumers in North Carolina was killed late Wednesday, making it the fourth time a gamefish measure has perished in the state.
“It is officially dead,” said Rep. Paul Tine, a Kitty Hawk Democrat. “It will not run.”
Tine said that the news was relayed to him by the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Tom Murry, R-Wake, who had just left a late-day Republican caucus.
The bill, HB 983, proposed to ban commercial catch of speckled trout, red drum and estuarine striped bass. The species would be reserved strictly for recreational anglers and could not be sold in fish markets and restaurants.
Tine said he believes the bill lost whatever wind it had in its sails when legislators saw the outrage from commercial fishermen, as well as the concern from chefs, fishing communities, local-catch advocates, and even tourism groups.
“We had very good numbers in opposition to the bill,” he said.
With the majority of Democrats opposed to the bill, combined with a number of Republicans against the measure, Tine said, the caucus decided that the bill did not have the traction it needed to pass.
The Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, a non-profit recreational fishing group, has been pushing the bill. The group contends that a small percentage of the three fish are caught by commercial watermen, and they would be more economically important to the state as recreational catch.
But opponents say that the fish are critical to the livelihood of watermen and are also well liked by consumers and tourists looking for local fresh fish.
The bottom line, Tine said, is that the fish are a public resource, and one group should not be favored over the other.
“It’s an unfair bill,” he said. “Right now, both sides can have a shot at it. There was no reason to pick winners and losers.”
Although Tine said that is very unlikely that the bill could be slipped through with some other bill, opponents are not ready to give up their vigilance.
“It’s a temporary victory,” said Karen Willis Amspacher, a board member of North Carolina Catch. “But it’s not the end of the discussion.
“We are very concerned it will be added to another bill. That’s always a threat.”
Amspacher, who is from Harkers Island, said that gamefish status was anathema not just to the commercial fishing interests in the state, but also to “foodies” and a growing number of people who value access to healthy wild-caught fish.
As one of many “cheerleaders” who helped rally the troops to oppose the bill, Amspacher is well aware that the CCA and its supporters also do not give up easily.
“We’ll keep watch,” she said, “every step of the way.”