Cape Carteret town commissioners’ decision last week to endorse a statewide referendum on the use of gill nets in the state’s coastal waters indicates a willingness to relegate complex scientific issues to a political decision. This devalues the expertise of biologists and scientists in the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries who regularly make these decisions on behalf of all stakeholders, to help one special group – recreational fishermen.
In a 4-1 vote, Cape Carteret commissioners supported a motion by board member Steve Martin endorsing N.C. House Bill 513 that will relegate the decision on the use of gill nets to a statewide referendum in the November 2022 election. The bill, sponsored by N.C. Rep. Bill Richardson, D-Fayetteville would, if passed, prohibit the use of gill nets containing more than 500 square feet of mesh area in coastal waters and would restrict usage to “no more than two nets which shall not be connected be used from any vessel and no person on a vessel shall use more than one net in coastal fishing waters.” The bill does not restrict the use of cast nets utilized by recreational fisherman to catch live bait.
Commissioner Martin, describing himself as a longtime recreational fisherman, sought the board’s endorsement of the house bill on the basis that gill nets are an “indiscriminate killer” of fish that are important to recreational fishermen and to the local economy. “I’m not against netting per se,” he told the board. “I am against gill netting in internal waters. I’m not against commercial fishermen.”
Describing fish as “public resource,” Mr. Martin wants everyone in the state to have a say in how they are harvested. Commissioner Jim Nalitz naively voted to support Mr. Martin’s motion explaining that “it seems all we are doing is (endorsing) a referendum.”
Gill netting by commercial fishermen in state waters has been declining for years as have the number of fishermen who are plying the trade. In 2001, DMF sold 6,783 commercial licenses while in 2020 only 4,426 commercial fishing licenses were sold - a 35% decline in the industry. Keep in mind not all these licenses involved gill net permits.
According to Glenn Skinner, executive director of the N. C. Fisheries Association, “most finfish species landed in the internal and near ocean are caught with gill nets,” including flounder, spot, croaker, mackerel, bluefish, mullet and sea mullet. These are all fish that are economically important to the state’s fish dealers, who in turn sell the catch to local and state restaurants.
Mr. Martin’s opinion on the economic value of recreational fishing ignores the even bigger economic value and subsequent influence that commercial fishing has on both the county and the state. Tourists, a vast majority of whom do not fish, come to the county with the anticipation of enjoying fresh local seafood served at restaurants. The availability of a wide variety of locally wild-caught seafood and shellfish is part of the attraction to not only this area but to the state as well since many inland restaurants promote fresh, local seafood on their menus.
Both this local endorsement and the house bill itself further ignore both the cultural and economic value that the commercial fishing industry provides to the state. It is particularly egregious on the part of the Cape Carteret board considering that the commercial fishing industry is one of the major cultural and economic backbones of the county.
Commissioner Jeff Waters, in casting the only opposing vote, correctly noted that fewer gill nets are being used every year, adding that the few who still use them do so “to feed their families,” unlike recreational fishermen who are not dependent on their catch.
But Mr. Waters offered a far more compelling reason not to support the bill and that is most people who would vote in the referendum, “don’t even know what a gill net is and wouldn’t know what they’re voting on and so would just vote against gill nets.”
Defending Rep. Richardson’s bill, Commissioner Martin stressed that fish “are a public trust that belongs to all. Let everyone in the state have a say in this.”
Commissioner Nalitz and the other board members, Don Miller, Mike King and Mr. Martin are naïve to think this topic should be decided by a public referendum. Fish are free ranging, covering large geographical areas both within and outside of state waters and as a result their numbers are impacted by a wide range of variables such as climate, water quality and life cycles. Because of these complexities, the legislature established the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997 delegating the responsibility of in-state fisheries management to a commission made up of commercial and recreational fishermen, scientists, fisheries managers and conservationists who have the expertise to make decisions to include gear usage and schedule for targeting certain species.
As Mr. Skinner noted following the Cape Carteret town boards endorsement of H.B. 513, this decision was “driven by political science, not fisheries science.” The county and the state need to delegate this issue to the people who have the knowledge and not to political whims of a special interest group.