State changes catch rules after striped bass kill

By on January 20, 2011

An overloaded fishing net was the apparent source of hundreds of striped bass seen dead in the ocean off the Dare County Coast last weekend, state regulators said Thursday.

An uproar over sightings of dead fish as well as unconfirmed reports of commercial trawlers discarding legal fish to keep larger ones under daily limits has led to changes in state regulations.

The captain of the trawler Jamie Lynn estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 fish were released from the net because it was too heavy to bring onto the boat, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries said in a statement.

Recreational and commercial fishermen picked up many of the dead fish, the division said, and when marine patrol officers arrived Saturday there were about 250 left.

Word of the fish kill spread quickly on the Internet. Some of the discussion centered on high grading.

“High-grading occurs when a fisherman discards a previously-caught, legal-sized fish in order to keep a larger fish within the daily possession limit,” the statement said. “While high-grading is not illegal, it is not an ethical fishing practice and the division does not condone it.”

Marine fisheries said it could not confirm any of the reports of high grading.

But the division said it will replace a 50-fish-per-day commercial trip limit with a 2,000-pound-per-day trip limit when the ocean trawl fishery reopens for three days next week. The 50-fish limit has been in place for 15 years.

“To avoid the need to throw back dead fish, commercial fishermen will be allowed to transfer trip limits to other fishing vessels that hold a striped bass ocean fishing permit for the commercial trawl fishery,” the statement said. “The transfers must be made in the ocean.”

Dare County Commissioner Mike Johnson said allowing transfer trip limits is significant. In years past, commercial vessels were seen to engage in both high-grading and exceeding the 50-fish limit by bringing their catch to the Oregon Inlet “ditch” and offloading the fish to skiffs that had been notified via radio to meet the boats.

The transfer provision is aimed at eliminating this practice, according to Johnson. Recreational charter captains raised this point within minutes of the state’s press release landing in e-mail boxes across the state.

The commercial fishing industry, which until today had been largely silent on the incident, responded to the state’s decision. Sean McKeon, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, a New Bern-based trade group that has represented commercial interests since 1952, released the following statement:

“Please note that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has as much to do with these discards as anyone; over the past few years the ASMFC has refused to approve moderate increases in the commercial quota, despite its own technical committee’s assurances that the proposed increases would have no negative effect on the stock.

“Nor would the ASMFC allow a small percentage of underages to be rolled over to the following year; during the debate to allow rollovers and the subsequent vote NOT to allow them, many ASMFC members stated they voted against rollovers because of political pressure from recreational constituents, again ignoring the technical committee’s opinion that the stock could easily absorb the modest rollovers requested by North Carolina’s delegation to the ASMFC.

“Up to that point, we were told, the technical committee’s recommendations were Gospel, that is until it benefitted commercial fishermen and their families.

“Further, for recreational anglers to be making such a federal case out of this small incident is beyond hypocritical, when the numbers below show which sector is actually catching and discarding the overwhelming majority of these fish. Recreational discards are more than double the entire commercial quota! Further, it was a coordinated effort on the part of recreational anglers that stopped any rollovers, and increases for the commercial sector being approved by the ASMFC. But boy were those guys around to pick up the fish that were forced to be discarded by a ridiculous policy in this fishery.

“Commercial regulatory discards make for a good weekend of fishing for some recreational anglers along NC coast, perfectly legal and something we have no problem with, but very hypocritical to then make such a spectacle of the 200 or so fish left in the ocean. The big story here is how come the recreational sector is not being held accountable and why does a commercial fishermen, abiding by the rules set up by the regulatory bodies, become a villain?

“Add to this the federal policy of no possession and harvest in the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and the traffic problems inside three miles are inevitable.

“A sad day for truth, once again.”

The numbers referred to in the statement were published by the North Carolina Divisions of Marine Fisheries on Jan. 20 and highlight the debate raging between commercial and recreational fishermen.

According to the DMF, recreational anglers landed twice as many striped bass as commercial fisheries and total recreational discards matched the total of commercial landings and were almost 2½ times commercial discards.

According to a 2010 Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission report, coast-wide commercial landings of striped bass in 2008 totaled more than a million fish; commercial discards were estimated at 395,400 fish. Coast-wide recreational landings in 2008 totaled more than 2 million fish. Recreational discards were estimated at more than a million fish.

Estimated discards are factored into stock assessments, and the most recent stock assessment for striped bass found that the species is healthy.

Written and reported by Rob Morris and Russ Lay.

Photo: Posted in a fishing forum on www.tidalfish.com.

Related: Fish kills put a spotlight on tension over rules »

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