MOREHEAD CITY — After more than three years of work, a permit is in place that regulates the incidental take of threatened and endangered sea turtles in the gill net fishery.
The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries signed an agreement Wednesday with the National Marine Fisheries Service that implements a statewide incidental take permit for sea turtles in the estuarine large and small-mesh gill net fisheries.
The permit authorizes the limited take of sea turtles in the gill net fisheries as part of an otherwise lawful activity.
It provides protections for the threatened loggerhead and green turtles, and endangered Kemp’s Ridley, hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles while allowing the gill net fisheries to continue.
“This is the result of a lot of hard work by dedicated division staff,” DMF Director Louis Daniel said via a news release announcing the agreement. “The flounder gill net fishery is an important economic factor in Eastern North Carolina, and this permit will allow it to continue on a limited basis while protecting threatened and endangered sea turtles.”
The permit approval comes as the fall flounder season is beginning for the fishery.
A number of state waters closed to gill net fishing in July due to observed interactions with sea turtles.
The division is considering when to reopen different waters based on the presence of sea turtles.
Chris Batsavage, the division’s protected resources section chief, said there are areas where the allowable take is very low, as low as one interaction with a sea turtle.
“We don’t want to open the waters too early; there are still a lot of sea turtles out in the sounds,” he said.
While the permit is statewide, the number of allowable incidental takes varies by area and other factors.
“There are allowable takes for different management areas, the different species, whether the turtles were taken dead or alive, and by gear type, small mesh or large mesh,” Batsavage said.
The number of allowed takes for each area is over a year, running from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31.
The permit has the same restrictions on soak times and gear requirements, and requirement for observer coverage as was previously implemented through a lawsuit settlement agreement between the state and the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on Topsail Island.
Also, the area previously known as the Pamlico Sound Gill Net Restricted Area now falls under the same soak times, gear requirements and observer requirements as other areas.
Part of the settlement agreement was that the state would seek the statewide Incidental Take Permit.
Jean Beasley, director of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, said Thursday that she had not yet read through the permit and did not want to comment until she is able to do so.
With the statewide Incidental Take Permit now in place, fisheries officials are reminding fishermen of the importance of complying with the requirements, including observer coverage. If all requirement of the permit are not met, it can be revoked, which could result in fishery closures.
Only interactions documented through the observation program go against the allowable takes.
As part of mitigation measures to help in the protection of the sea turtles, the permit includes a requirement that all commercial and recreational fishermen using small-mesh or large-mess gill nets report any interactions with a sea turtle by calling the division at 252-726-7021 or 1-800-682-2632.
The permit was issued for 10 years.
The permit and implementing agreement can be viewed on the division’s website at portal.ncdenr.com/web/mf/ by looking under “Hot Topics.”