Fish kills put a spotlight on tension over rules

By on January 17, 2011

A fish kill said to be off the Dare coastline last weekend. (Posted in a fishing forum on www.tidalfish.com)

Thousands of dead striped bass and red drum floating in a long line off Dare County beaches create a disturbing image. And in the era of digital photography, it didn’t take long for the pictures to find their way online, spreading virally and grabbing the attention of news media in at least two states.

No one wants to believe, and few can understand, how something like this occurs. The accusations are flying.

Welcome to one of the longest running feuds in Dare County, played out in almost every other fishing community along America’s shorelines

News analysis

Recreational and commercial fishing interests collide every day. As federal and state regulators increase their oversight, assigning quotas, size limits and other regulations to both groups in an effort to maintain sustainable stocks, the rhetoric between the two camps continues to heat up.

So it came as no surprise when this past weekend, recreational anglers came across the scene depicted here. The dead fish, they say, came from commercial trawlers hauling nets through striped bass schools, ensnaring everything in the path of the huge webs.

Why the dead fish? It’s what most observers would describe as an unintended consequence of fishing regulations designed to prevent precisely this type of waste. And a solution to the problem is elusive.

The regulatory responsibility starts with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). Fifteen coastal states appoint three representatives each to the commission; one legislator, one gubernatorial appointee and each state’s director of marine fisheries. The group set broad parameters on size and annual tonnage quotas.

Its jurisdiction follows each state’s territorial waters, mostly near shore, leaving offshore regulation to the federal government. The state Division of Marine Fisheries decides how to carve up its allotment of tonnage and sets daily limits.

For North Carolina, Dare County Commissioner Mike Johnson serves as the legislative proxy for state Rep. William Wainwright on the ASMFC. The Voice called Johnson, who actively participates in the discussions where these quotas and regulations are created. Johnson summed up the issue in three words: “Daily bag limits.”

Johnson said that while many managed species of fish are assigned annual quotas based on the total pounds landed, the ASMFC has also insisted daily catch limits be included in the formula. To Johnson, this makes little sense and contributes to the scenes witnessed this weekend.

For example, if a species of fish is assigned a 200,000-pound annual catch limit for North Carolina, there is also a daily catch limit for each commercial vessel. For rockfish, based on their average weight, the daily limit is  50 fish per day. Striped bass also can be no smaller than 28 inches.

Trawlers use towed nets to harvest their catch. These nets do not discriminate by quantity, size or species. If a commercial vessel trawls through a school of stripers, there is no way to predict how many will be caught in the net.

Some fish die from the stress of being netted. Once the net is hauled on deck, the crew culls through the catch. Stripers that are too small, other unwanted species and any fish exceeding the daily catch limit are tossed overboard. In the process of sorting, more fish die or are weakened to the extent that they expire shortly after release.

Suppose the trawler lands its limit of stripers on the first haul. Some legal-sized stripers will die in the process, as well as rockfish not yet large enough to be caught. The trawler might retain the 50 largest fish, but if the first trawl yielded mostly 28-inch fish and subsequent trawls land larger fish, the stripers caught earlier might be tossed overboard and replaced by the larger fish. Some of these fish will die in this “swapping” process.

The trawler wants to bring to dock the largest fish (by weight) it can legally possess to earn more money. Fish are sold by the pound.

As Johnson points out, if an annual cap exists on the total allowable tonnage per season, the need for a daily cap is less clear. While the economics of sport fishing might find some advantage in daily catch limits as a way to extend the fishing season, commercial operators would prefer to reach their annual quotas with fewer trips.

Eliminating the daily catch limits might reduce the number of legal fish discarded and left for dead after a day on the water.

To be fair, while many eyes are trained on the commercial vessels, there is virtually no way to account for the hundreds, if not thousands of non-commercial boats plying the sounds and near- shore waters pursuing stripers.

Smaller daily limits apply to individual recreational fishermen, and while many use live wells to preserve a “keeper,” sport fishermen sometimes will also release a smaller legal fish if they catch a larger one later in the day, especially if their live well is already at the legal limit.

The released fish, weakened by rod and reel action and stressed further by the live well, will often perish.

While not as dramatic as a single trawler dumping hundreds of fish at one time, the multiplier effect of hundreds of private boats working the same waters as a half dozen commercial trawlers may indicate both groups are discarding too many viable fish in order to comply with the bag limits.

Certainly, in the battle for “PR,” recreational fishermen are scoring major points in their arguments that commercial operators, who often complain about ever-decreasing annual quotas, should not leave trails of dead fish in their wake, a practice which further reduces the fisheries stock.

Johnson has tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the daily limits for commercial operations and focus instead on the annual quota.

Until the rule is changed, more dead striped bass, red drum and even trout caught in fixed nets will be discarded for the sole purpose of avoiding a legal citation and penalty when the boat returns to the dock.

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