In the wake of this winter’s uproar over striped bass kills off the Outer Banks, state lawmakers have introduced a bill that would designate the species a gamefish and prohibit commercial catches in North Carolina waters.
The House bill also would add red drum and speckled trout to the list of gamefish, putting all three off limits to commercial operations.
Previous legislation to designate red drum and speckled trout gamefish made no headway in the General Assembly. But with the added attention to the striped bass and many new lawmakers in Raleigh, that could change, said Stephen Ammons, North Carolina director for the Coastal Conservation Association, which has been pushing for the bill.
“I have high hopes for it this time,” he said.
Mikey Daniels of Wanchese Fish Co. sees the legislation as another unjustified assault on commercial fishing that ignores research that mortalities are higher in releases by recreational anglers.
Consumers will also feel the consequences, he said.
“It they make it a gamefish,” he said, “it’ll never be sold again.”
Two widely publicized fish kills this winter led to changes in the rules for commercial catches of striped bass.
The first one involved the release of fish from an overloaded net, the state Marine Fisheries Commission said. The second, smaller one took place the day trawlers were allowed back out under new rules that set the daily limit at 2,000 pounds and allowed the transfer of fish exceeding that to other licensed boats. The mortalities were apparently the result of culling fish from catches.
Fisheries officials subsequently decided to re-open the season one day at a time and limit trawls of nets to 30 minutes.
The bill, introduced by a bipartisan group of legislators, would restrict catches to hook and line in coastal waters. The legislation would prohibit selling or trading the fish and possessing them for sale inside or outside the state.
It calls for setting up a compensation fund that would pay commercial operations the equivalent of the average annual income from the species over a period of three years. The fund would also provide compensation for gear that could no longer be used because of the new prohibition.
Total payouts would be limited to $1 million.
The bill passed its first reading in the House Wednesday and was referred to committee.
Ammons said that his organization had unsuccessfully tried to persuade the state Marine Fisheries Commission to create stricter rules to protect the three species.
“We’ve gone through the process and it hasn’t worked,” he said.
Striped bass represent a small percentage of commercial catches but provide needed income between seasons for species that generate more money and tonnage, Daniels said.
“It’s going to be a really sad time for the commercial fishers,” he said.