RALEIGH — A new bill is before the General Assembly that would make three fish species gamefish, raise fishing license prices and provide funds for state fishing observers and dredging.
One of the four actions proposed in the bipartisan bill, filed Wednesday by four inland county representatives and titled H.B. 983, “The 2013 Fisheries Economic Development Act,” is to designate red drum, spotted sea trout and striped bass as coastal gamefish. It also seeks to compensate commercial fishermen for “certain losses due to coastal gamefish designations,” increase Coastal Recreational Fishing License fees, appropriate funds for the marine fisheries observer program and provide funding for dredging shallow draft navigation channels.
If these three species of fish are declared coastal gamefish, they’ll only be able to be taken by recreational fishing. The only fish of these species that anyone will be able to buy, sell, transport or exchange are ones grown in an aquaculture operation, imported from a state without a gamefish designation for them, purchased by a restaurant, or possessed by individuals within the daily recreational limit for their own, personal use, including people who are customers of a guided fishing trip.
Nancy Fish, public information officer for the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission – the rulemaking body of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries – said the DMF is concerned about the legislation.
“While our concern is based on a variety of factors,” she said, “the greatest issue is that we believe the action is contrary to the N.C. Fisheries Reform Act, our state’s guiding legislation for managing coastal fisheries.”
Ms. Fish said the DMF recommends strategies to manage resources for the benefit of all user groups. She said designating gamefish status for any coastal species gives the recreational sector preference over the commercial sector.
A recreational fisherman nonprofit group is in support of this bill. Chuck Laughridge, Harkers Island resident and representative of the N.C. branch of the Coastal Conservation Association, said the association not only supports the bill, but also worked with two of its authors, Rep. Tom Murry, R-Wake, and Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe, to draft the portion on gamefish.
“We’ve had meetings with them since the close of the short session last summer,” Mr. Laughridge said.
The other primary sponsors are Rep. Michael Wray, D-Halifax County and Rep John Bell IV, R-Wayne County.
This isn’t the first time state legislators have sought gamefish status for these three species. In 2011, H.B. 353, known as the “Designation of Coastal Gamefish” was introduced to seek gamefish status for them. However, the bill stalled in committee and died during the 2012 short session.
Mr. Laughridge said that, unlike H.B. 353, H.B. 983 will not ask for ocean striped bass to be declared gamefish. By doing so, he said the latest bill will only remove two percent of total finfish landings in the state.
“Dr. Louis Daniel (DMF director), has publicly stated on numerous occasions that spotted sea trout is already unable to be managed for a sustainable harvest,” Mr. Laughridge said. He also said that both red drum and estuarine striped bass are both already in bycatch fisheries, meaning they’re only commercially landed as an incidental take with other commercial species.
A nonprofit supporting the state seafood industry doesn’t like the bill, however. Sean McKeon, executive director of the N.C. Fisheries Association, said the bill is extraordinarily misnamed.
“It should be ‘The Commercial Fishery Economic Devastation Act,’” he said. “There’s nothing in the bill to justify this (gamefish status). The title is a joke; Rep. Murray and Rep. Wray should be ashamed of themselves for being used this way.”
Mr. McKeon said he thinks the bill was created at the request of “a small group of recreational boat owners.” He said the legislators who introduced this bill “have no idea what devastation this will have on the coast.”
“They talk about it only being two to three percent of the harvest,” he said. “But every small fish market needs every percentage it can get.”
Observer program funding
H.B. 983 will also appropriate $1.3 million from the state General Fund for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. This money is for administering and implementing the Marine Fisheries Observer Program, a program that observes interactions between protected marine species and fishing gear.
A lawsuit settlement with the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in 2010 requires the state maintain this observer program, as does the state’s incidental take permit for the Pamlico Sound Gill Net Restricted Area. The DMF is applying for another, statewide ITP that would require the program as well; this permit would be for both sea turtles and Atlantic sturgeon.
Dr. Louis Daniel, DMF director, said at a Marine Fisheries Commission meeting in November of 2012 that funding for the observer program is running out. He said current funds would allow the program to keep operating until the end of Fiscal 2012-13, which is June 30.
If the funds run out, small and large mesh gill net fisheries – which are involved in the commercial harvest of several commercially important species - in inland and sound waters will have to close immediately. Ocean gill net fisheries, strike netting and runaround gill netting fisheries, however, may continue to operate.
At the November 2012 CRC meeting, Dr. Daniel said the DMF was going to send proposed legislature to the General Assembly to try and get more funds for the observer program. However, Ms. Smith said this bill has nothing to do with the division’s proposal.
“The DMF has proposed increase in commercial license fees to fund the observer program,” she said, “and still hopes to see legislation to this effect. Gov. McCrory’s proposed budget included $1.3 million for the program to be funded by appropriations for one year, then switch to receipt (license) funding after that. The division supports Gov. McCrory’s proposal.”
State dredging fund
H.B. 983 will also credit the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission half a percent of the amount allocated to the Highway Fund from the gas exercise tax for dredging shallow draft navigation channels. The revenue will go into the Shallow Draft Navigation Channel Dredging Fund, a fund created by the bill to pay for the costs of dredging projects to keep state waters safe and navigable.
Projects funded through this method will have to be cost-shared, with non-state money on a cost-to-cost basis. A “shallow draft channel” is a channel with a maximum depth of 14 feet, located in one of the following areas:
• Between the Atlantic Ocean and a bay or the Intracoastal Waterway.
• A river entrance to the Atlantic Ocean through which tidal and other currents flow.
• Other interior coastal waterways.
Channels considered shallow draft channels include Beaufort Harbor, Bogue Inlet, Carolina Beach Inlet, the channel from Back Sound to Lookout Back, channels connected to federal navigation channels, Lockwoods Folly River, Manteo/Shallowbag Bay, Oregon Inset, Masonboro Inlet, New River, New Topsail Inlet, Rodanthe River, Rollison River, Shallotte River, Silver Lake Harbor and the waterway connection Pamlico Sound and Beaufort harbor.
Mr. McKeon called including dredging in this bill along with its other actions “a poison pill.”
“Dredging is a vital necessity,” he said. “But rather than create a separate bill and explain why they need this (gamefish status), they try to conceal it (with the dredging language). It’s disgraceful the way they did this; I hope and pray there are some people in the Senate who will stand against this.”
Fishing license fee increase
The bill will also raise the fees for a recreational fishing license. Annual resident licenses will go from $15 each to $20, annual nonresident licenses will go from $30 to $40, 10-day resident license will go from $5 to $10 and 10-day nonresident licenses will go from $10 to $20.
Mr. Laughridge said Rep. Murray put this this part of the bill in for economic development. He said the Sportsman’s Caucus decided to raise both hunting and fishing license fees, so the action won’t be singling out coastal recreational fishermen.
(As noted in a post below, the original version of this story stated the incorrect bill number on first reference and misspelled Rep. Tom Murry's name. This version corrects those errors.)