PINE KNOLL SHORES — Gill net fishermen will soon be able to return to the water, but no red drum caught in their nets as bycatch can be kept before the next season, which opens Sept. 1.
The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission took action Thursday that re-opens waters in certain exempted areas to allow anchored large-mesh gill net operations beginning June 1. However, no possession of red drum will be allowed.
The approved areas include western Albemarle Sound, Currituck Sound, Pamlico River, Pungo River, Neuse River and New River upstream of the N.C. 172 bridge.
The board also voted to allow large mesh runaround gill net fishing statewide but with no possession of red drum until Sept. 1.
It wasn’t what the North Carolina Fisheries Association had requested, but it does end a closure of coastal waters to gill net fishing that had been in place since May 5.
“We wanted to have some bycatch, but with this fishermen will be able to get back to work,” NCFA President Jerry Schill said.
The closure was implemented to avoid the bycatch of red drum after the red drum commercial harvest limit was exceeded in the fall. Red drum is a bycatch fishery, with a certain number of red drum allowed to be harvested when they are caught by fishermen targeting other species.
Commercial fishermen landed 263,072 pounds between Sept. 1 and Nov. 23, exceeding the cap by 13,072 pounds.
Rocky Carter of Swansboro, a member of the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, a group comprised primarily of recreational anglers in support of conservation of the coastal resources, supports enforcing the cap in place.
He said there are rules to protect the red drum population, and he believes the red drum season should remain closed until the new season opens Sept. 1.
“We need to enforce the rules and we need to keep the (red drum) season closed to protect the resource,” he said following a public hearing at the start of Thursday MFC meeting.
CCA has expressed concerns about the large overage and the possibility of the illegal targeting of red drum by commercial fishermen.
Division of Marine Fisheries Director Louis Daniel said in his report that the division is evaluating irregularities in reporting, bycatch tolerance, multiple trips per day, late reports and other issues; but could not discuss it further do to the ongoing investigations.
Commercial fishermen have said this has been a year with an unusually large number of red drum in the water; and with more of them in the water, it is easier to interact with them while fishing for flounder.
With the red drum season closed, fishermen must now throw back any red drum they may catch, which has raised concerns because of the likelihood that those fish will die.
Because of concerns about exceeding the red drum cap and because of the large number of red drum in the coastal waters, the board of the N.C. Fisheries Association requested a voluntary closure of waters to large mesh anchored gill nets with a limited opening in certain areas where there is less chance of red drum interaction.
The request also asked that fishermen be able to land four red drum per day as bycatch initially and up to 7 per day beginning Aug. 1.
However, reopening red drum season before Sept. 1 would be against current fishery management plans, Daniel said.
Commission member Allyn Powell was willing to support the NCFA to allow the possession of four red drum per day as bycatch within the exempted areas.
He offered a substitute motion to the original one but if failed to get approval. Because the motion would have put them out of compliance with current rules, a supermajority was needed, including support of at least one commercial fisherman and one recreational fisherman.
The substitute motion failed 5-2.
Powell said during a break that his concern is the mortality of red drum discarded as bycatch. He said that the number of red drum documented in the exempted areas is low.
Commercial fisherman C.R. “Buzz” Frederick said fishermen were willing to take the hit of a closure to protect red drum. He said there has been an abundance of red drum this year and keeping a few as bycatch would keep them from throwing them back dead.
While he’s glad to be able to work, they’ll have to wait until Sept. 1 to land red drum.
“I don’t know what to think,” he said after the decision.