TOPSAIL BEACH – A battle has been brewing over the use of gill nets in the waters off North Carolina – and now it’s heading to court.
The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, located in Topsail Beach, has filed a lawsuit in federal court asking that the state no longer allow gill net fishing.
The lawsuit uses the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in its argument against gill net fishing.
It also points to studies done by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the North Carolina Department of Marine Fisheries which have concluded that gill net fishing harms sea turtles, which are protected by the ESA.
Defendants in the lawsuit include North Carolina Department of Marine Fisheries, North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission, and DMF Director Dr. Louis Daniel.
The suit charges that the defendants have issued permits and licenses that “have resulted in the illegal take of estimated thousands of protected sea turtles over the previous decades, and continue to result in the illegal take of protected sea turtles today.”
The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is being represented by the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. Supervising attorney Michelle Nowlin said the lawsuit asks the state to enforce existing laws.
“Our client is asking North Carolina to enforce the law to aid the recovery of these threatened species,” Nowlin stated in a press release on Tuesday. “We value the rich history of commercial fishermen and fishing communities in our state. However, gill nets are a destructive gear and the prevailing method of use injures and kills sea turtles and threatens their existence.”
Commercial fishermen are concerned that a gill net ban will put them out of business.
The NC Marine Fisheries Commission recently voted to continue to allow large mesh gill net fishing but restricted it to four days a week.
The commission has also considered banning large mesh nets from May 15 to Dec. 15 in an effort to prevent interactions with sea turtles.
The issue has been brewing for some time.
Last November, legal representation for the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle and Rehabilitation Center gave the NC Division of Marine Fisheries notice to stop issuing gill net permits or face a lawsuit.
At that time Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic issued a 60 day notice of intent to file a lawsuit. To avoid the lawsuit, the NC Fisheries had to ban gill nets from inshore waters.
Nowlin said that banning gill nets is nothing new and that the commercial fishing industry can do well without that form of fishing.
“Almost every Atlantic state with significant sea turtle populations has banned or severely restricted these nets in areas where sea turtles nest and forage, proving that commercial fishing can prosper without this harmful technology,” stated Nowlin.
She also noted the lawsuit is a result of the turtle population continuing to decline and the ESA not being enforced.
“After years of trying to address these problems through regulatory channels, sea turtle populations continue to decline. We must ask the court to enforce the law so that sea turtle populations may recover to the point where the legal protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act are no longer needed,” stated Nowlin.
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, all five species of sea turtles found in the waters off North Carolina’s coast are designated as either threatened or endangered.