N.C. Fisheries Association

EMERALD ISLE — The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission voted 9-0 Friday to go to a public comment period soon with a temporary measure that would close the striped mullet fishery from Nov. 7 through Dec. 31 of 2023.

The closure, according to N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF) staff, should result in a 22.1 reduction in the annual harvest.

The commission, which met in the Islander Hotel and online via YouTube, opted not to OK for public consideration a second option proposed by division staff that would close the season from Oct. 29 through Dec. 31 and result in a likely annual harvest reduction of 33.7 percent.

If the commission approves the measure in February after a 30-day public comment period, it would be the first time in state history that neither commercial nor recreational fishermen would be allowed to go mullet fishing. Many do it part-time, either commercially or to catch bait to sell or use.

Commissioners and NCDMF staff said they were compelled to act under state law, which requires action to address overfishing and stock depletion. All were particularly concerned because striped mullet is in large part a “roe” fishery in the fall when effort peaks, meaning mature females bearing eggs are caught, endangering the sustainability of the species. Mullet roe is particularly popular in Carteret County.

There is no size limit for striped mullet, as many recreational fishermen use them to catch other fish, meaning many females are caught before they reproduce.

Under the proposal, fishermen will still be able to possess striped mullet during the closure if they can prove they were caught and bought out of state. There are also significant mullet fisheries in South Carolina and Virginia.

The unanimous vote came after the commission rejected a motion to go with the tougher measure.

It was a rare show of unity – commercial and recreational fishing representatives and at-large representatives on the panel voted together – on a controversial issue.

The motion was made by commercial fishing representative and Vice Chair Doug Cross of Pamlico County and drew support from recreational representative Tom Roller of Carteret County, a recreational fishing guide who initially introduced an unsuccessful motion to go with the more restrictive option and to allow recreational mullet fishing during the closure.

“I’ll support it because we have to do something,” Roller said. He said he agreed the longer closure would be hard on the commercial fishermen.

The commercial fishing representatives on the board contended forcefully that the option that would end the season on Oct. 29 would be too hard on the many watermen who depend on the fishery for income in the fall, especially when their efforts are often hindered by fall storms.

They also noted that commercial striped mullet landings have been fairly consistent, generally in the one- to two-million-pound range, for years.

In 2017, according to NCDMF statistics, landings totaled 1.36 million pounds, and they have been 1.31 million, 1.36 million and 1.29 million in 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively. In 2021, the total was 2.1 million pounds, worth $1.33 million. The peak year since 1972 was 1993 when landings totaled 3.06 million pounds, worth $1.94 million.

There is no size limit for striped mullet, as many recreational fishermen use them to catch other fish.

The commission also rejected a motion by Cross to delay action until May on the temporary measure in order to get more data from this year’s fall fishery.

His reasoning for the proposal was that “We’re seeing more mullet than we have in many years.”

Division staff said that’s likely true, in part because landings were down a bit in recent years for a variety of reasons, including hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic, which decreased effort in the crucial fall season.

But staff also said the increased fishing effort this year could end up wiping out the stock increase the fishermen are noticing, so it was best to move forward and get a temporary measure in place.

In addition, NCDMF Director Kathy Rawls said it would be difficult if not impossible to get significant accurate landings data in time to make a difference for a decision in May.

Rawls also said staff believes the fall closure in 2023 should be enough to help the stock rebound quickly enough that it won’t have to be done again in 2024, in part because striped mullet are incredibly fecund.

She said the division staff is working hard on Amendment 2 to the fisheries management plan for striped mullet, a document that likely will include management measures that are more flexible than closing the season.

The goal is to have a draft of the amendment plan ready by May 2023 and to release the document for review by the public and the fisheries commission’s advisory panels in August 2023.

Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt

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