NEWPORT — There won’t be a commercial red drum spring/summer season this year because the yearly quota was exceeded last winter.
One environmental nonprofit is worried this overage was because of commercial fishermen targeting red drum, but N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries Director Dr. Louis Daniel says he thinks it was due to a good spawning season.
According to a press release from the N.C. Press Service Thursday, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries has determined that during the recent fall/winter red drum commercial season, 260,866 pounds of red drum were harvested. This exceeds the 250,000-pound cap set for the whole year.
The fall/winter season’s harvest total reflects a 10,866-pound overage on the yearly quota and a 110,866-pound overage on the 150,000-pound seasonal limit for the fall/winter season. Because of these overages, the DMF won’t be opening the commercial red drum bycatch fishery for the May 1-Aug. 30 season this year, which traditionally has a 100,000-pound season limit.
The fishery was closed Nov. 23, 2013, when submitted trip tickets showed 144,258 pounds of the 150,000-pound harvest limit for the Sept. 1-April 30 fall/winter season had been landed. At the time, the DMF hadn’t entered the data from the September or October tickets into this total yet, and the tickets for November hadn’t been received yet.
The state’s commercial red drum fishery is a bycatch fishery. This means that commercial fishermen aren’t allowed to specifically target red drum, but they’re allowed to keep a certain amount of them caught incidentally while fishing for other commercial species.
Dr. Louis Daniel, DMF director, said in Thursday’s press release that normally 50,000-60,000 pounds of red drum are commercially landed from September through November.
“This year, over 100,000 pounds were caught in October,” he said. “We’ve never seen that in our history.”
The North Carolina chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, a nonprofit recreational fishermen’s organization dedicated to protecting the coastal environment, is concerned about the overages. Greg Hurt, CCA-N.C. chairman, said in Thursday’s press release the amount of the overage “confirms some commercial fishermen are targeting red drum.”
“Red drum are designated as an incidental catch,” he said, “not a directed fishery as was the case last fall.”
Dr. Chris Elkins, a retired UNC microbiologist, chairman of CCA-N.C.’s fisheries committee and former member of the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission, blamed the MFC for the overages. The commission sets fisheries rules and policies.
Dr. Elkins said the MFC’s decision to raise the bycatch limit on red drum is what caused deliberate targeting. Red drum have traditionally been caught incidentally in the large mesh southern flounder fishery.
“The original rules allowed a five red drum bycatch so long as an equal weight of southern flounder was caught,” he said. “When these rules were in effect, less than five percent of the trip tickets reporting red drum showed the maximum of five fish, indicated that fishermen rarely, if at all, targeted red drum.”
The MFC raised this limit from five fish to 10 in March of 2010. Dr. Daniel said in Thursday’s press release that limits will probably become more restrictive during the next fall/winter season.
“We know with a good year class, a 10-fish bycatch is too much,” he said. “Five to seven fish gives us a better handle to keep it from going over (the cap).”
While Dr. Daniel also said in Thursday’s release its fair to raise the question of whether commercial fishermen are targeting red drum, he said in a Friday interview with the News-Times he doesn’t believe it’s necessarily the reason for the overage.
“With all the restrictions on inshore gill nets, the fishermen have had to move onto other fisheries with a red drum bycatch,” he said. “One of the things we’re learning, for both speckled trout and red drum, is they’re difficult to manage with a five-year stock assessment.”
The reason this is difficult is because with size limits, commercial fishermen can only harvest red drum if they’re between 18 and 27 inches. This protects the spawning stock by ensuring large red drum aren’t harvested.
Red drum spawn each year, the resulting fish spawned during it referred to as that year’s “class.” Dr. Daniel said that the numbers in each class are affected by a lot of factors, such as regulations, water temperature and other environmental factors.
“We just had a record year come though,” he said, “and the commercial fishermen just caught a lot of fish.”
Whether or not targeting is the cause of the overages, Dr. Daniel said in Thursday’s release that several issues might need to be discussed by the MFC. These issues include selling bycatch at different locations from a targeted species and pairing the bycatch allowance to the fishery with the bycatch.
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.