By Erin James
© January 22, 2011
It was a sight that appalled Outer Banks anglers. // Bobbing in the waves were hundreds, maybe thousands, of dead striped bass, a catch prized for its fight and sold on restaurant menus as “rockfish.” They’d been cut loose from a commercial vessel’s nets.
Video of the scene, shot off Bodie Island last weekend, made a splash on YouTube. Internet boards soon lit up with angry anglers denouncing their commercial counterparts. Many suspected the dead fish were the byproduct of high-grading, a legal practice in which watermen – limited by state rules to 50 fish a day – discard smaller fish to keep larger ones.
By week’s end, the state acted swiftly to quell the controversy and, in a rare move, changed long-standing regulations.
Come Monday, watermen operating trawl boats will be allowed 2,000 pounds of stripers, not 50 fish, in order to discourage the practice of tossing dead fish into the sea.
One waterman said it will likely mean more earnings.
Still, the for-profit fishing sector, forever at odds with regulations they consider onerous and confusing, wonders: How do you weigh 2,000 pounds of fish at sea?
It all started Jan. 15.
The Atlantic Ocean was packed with the boats of commercial and recreational fishermen, most in search of stripers.
One of those recreational fishermen was Edward Mann, who also happens to represent his fellow anglers on the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission.
After three hours, Mann had managed to hoist a single striper out of the ocean and onto his boat. So he was excited to hear a message on the radio from a commercial trawler nearby that reported it had caught so many fish it would have to cut its net and let some go.
Mann eased his way there. Forty-five minutes later, he was floating in a sea full of dead fish. He estimated 70 other recreational boats also saw the spectacle.
“It’s kind of sickening to troll through dead fish,” Mann said. “You see what you’re trying to catch being thrown overboard dead.”
Someone in one of those 70 boats had a video camera and posted footage on YouTube. It drew the ire of many anglers aghast at the waste and quick to lay blame at the feet of watermen. Discussion forums on fishing websites lit up, stoking the flames of a sometimes bitter rivalry between the two sectors.
“Just goes to prove that some commercial guys are the most short-sighted businessmen on the planet, willing to destroy the resource that provides them their income,” one poster wrote on Tidalfish.com.
Flooded with complaints after those images of dead fish began circulating, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries launched an investigation and called a meeting. On Thursday night, the division announced it had concluded the trawler responsible for last week’s incident was not high-grading but that its net was full of fish and too heavy to bring on board.
The agency, at the direction of its director, also announced the 50-fish limit would change to a 2,000-pound limit.
An orange sun was setting Wednesday over Wanchese, a hub of commercial fishing activity on the Outer Banks, when the second of nine fishing boats docked at the Willie R. Etheridge Seafood Co. The gill-net crew had been on the water since before sunrise.
As manager Mark Vrablic watched, they unloaded 40 striped bass one by one onto a metal conveyor belt to be processed.
“The laws are just devastating,” Vrablic said. “If they make the numbers any less than they are, these guys aren’t going to be able to make a living.”
For 15 years, state law in North Carolina limited commercial trawlers – a type of large fishing boat that drags a net – to 50 striped bass a day. The marine fisheries division periodically opens and closes the season as trawlers statewide approach an annual quota.
Virginia, which banned trawl fishing years ago, operates the striped-bass commercial fishery with a catch-share program. Businesses, most of which use gill or pound nets in the ocean, purchase shares of the state’s quota and can fish between Dec. 31 and Feb. 1 until their share of the quota is reached, said Joe Grist, a senior manager with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
North Carolina watermen like Vrablic often say layers of government bureaucracy and unrealistic fishing laws are most at fault for wasteful practices such as high-grading.
As fuel costs rise and laws become more restrictive, the incentive to bring in larger fish also increases, said Mikey Daniels, who co-owns the Wanchese Seafood Co. and represents industry interests on the fisheries commission.
“They’re trying to catch everything they can get – to survive,” Daniels said, adding that he believes reports of high-grading are exaggerated.
Striped bass average between 15 and 20 pounds per fish, Daniels said, so this change should be a financial win for watermen.
Rick Caton, a Wanchese charter boat captain who’s also worked on trawlers for the commercial side, said he doubts the rule change will do much to minimize waste. Trawler nets – unlike the mesh of gill nets – are not designed to free smaller fish, he said.
“We have not learned anything from our mistakes on this one. Nothing,” Caton said. “I think it will eliminate some discards, but you’re still going to be killing too many undersized fish.”