The North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission decided by the slimmest of margins on Friday morning, May 15, that bucking a regional weakfish management plan wasn’t in the best interest of the state.
To bring the state into compliance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) weakfish plan, rules limiting commercial fishermen to a 100-pound trip limit and recreational fishermen to a one-fish bag limit went into effect Sunday, May 16.
In March, the state Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) had voted to not implement the rules.
Rob Bizzell, MFC chairman, said the commission originally opposed adopting the rules because of concerns that the rules missed the mark as conservation measures and would impact North Carolina fishermen more than other fishermen.
But, after the ASMFC formally voted North Carolina out of compliance with the plan and sent the issue to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce for review on May 10, the state board reconsidered the issue.
The motion to implement the rules was made by Mac Currin, and passed in a 5 to 4 vote with chairman Bizzell casting the deciding vote.
“The clock started ticking with the out-of-compliance finding,” Bizzell said in a telephone interview.
After receiving notification of North Carolina’s non-compliance status, the Commerce Secretary would have had 30 days to determine whether failure to implement the ASMFC rules jeopardized conservation efforts and if warranted, could close all commercial and recreational weakfish fishing in the state.
“The idea that the Secretary could shut down fishing frightened people, but the state would have had the opportunity to make our case before the Secretary,” said MFC member Bradley Styron, a commercial fisherman and seafood dealer in Cedar Island who voted against adopting the new regulations.
But Bizzell said North Carolina would be perceived as a “rogue state, and that would have put us in a bad negotiating position.”
Whether the state would have been able to convince the Secretary that the state’s inaction did not jeopardize conservation won’t be known, but Louis Daniel, director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, had no success convincing the ASMFC.
At the ASMFC meeting, Daniel addressed the potential for large regulatory discards – that is, fish that must be thrown back to the sea even if dead – under the 100-pound trip limit.
Daniel proposed an alternative measure that would have allowed commercial fishermen to keep weakfish incidentally caught on trips targeting other species, as long as weakfish made up less than 25 percent of the total catch.
“It was a very good argument, backed up by impeccable data, but it was never seriously considered by the other states, and it was apparent to me that that was a foregone conclusion before the meeting even started,” said Mike Johnson, Dare County commissioner who also serves as proxy for William Wainwright, the North Carolina legislative appointee on the ASMFC.
The ASMFC expects to address the bycatch of weakfish in other fisheries later this year.
Styron said ASMFC weakfish management has hurt North Carolina more than other states.
“In 1994, we gave up more than 300,000 square miles of fishing grounds south of Hatteras that were closed to flynetting. We were told at that time just to wait two years and we’d see more weakfish than ever,” he said.
“But that rule eventually took 28 Carteret County trawlers out of the business, and this county lost a complete fishery,” Styron continued.
The weakfish stock is considered depleted, with spawning stock biomass well below levels biologists say are necessary to sustain the population. Data shows a sharp decline in the biomass after 1999.
But, managers don’t believe fishing restrictions alone will bring the stock back to a healthy size. Research points to insufficient forage and increased predation by striped bass and dogfish as the explanation for the decline in weakfish.
Styron said he has seen weakfish, sea mullet, and jumping mullet in spiny dogfish brought to his fish house.
“No significant amount of dogfish are being taken out of the system, resulting in a tremendous predation problem. They are wreaking havoc on everything,” he said.