Bill would have impact on redfish, trout, bass

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By Jeffrey Weeks, Fishing Correspondent

Inshore fishing is showing signs of life as strong redfish action continues while a few early-season speckled trout and flounder have been added to the mix. The piers have seen some whiting (sea mullet) action, which should pick up soon along with the addition of the season’s first bluefish.

As spring fishing begins, many anglers’ eyes are turned toward fisheries management and the fate of North Carolina’s coastal species. We are still in a catch and release closed season (no recreational harvest) for trout until at least mid-June. Meanwhile, a bill has been introduced in Raleigh that could change the way the state manages these stocks.

North Carolina can make powerful strides in its fisheries management if this new bill is passed, granting much-needed gamefish status to red drum, speckled trout and striped bass. Although these species make up less than 2 percent of the state’s commercial harvest, their value to the recreational fishery, state businesses and tourism are enormous.

In the last 20 years, state after state has protected these particular fish from commercial netting and overharvest. North Carolina, however, has bucked that trend and stood alone while watching our stocks of these vital fish shipped to out-of-state fish markets, despite their relative unimportance to commercial fishing and their utmost importance to a healthy recreational industry.

House Bill 353 seeks to finally end the mismanagement of these species, while at the same time providing payments to the small number of commercial fishermen affected by this bill. That will allow commercial fishermen to seamlessly make the transition to different and more lucrative fish species, which hold less recreational vitality.

If gamefish status is approved, red drum, speckled trout and striped bass will be taken by hook and line only. In the last year we have seen that the state Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) is simply unable to manage these species for any commercial harvest at all.

Despite their low importance in the scheme of North Carolina’s commercial market, the damaging inshore netting of speckled trout and the wasteful killing of big striped bass have not been stopped by the MFC; in fact, they have been encouraged. The only way to properly protect these fish is for the legislature to pass this important bill.

The Coastal Conservation Association estimates the economic impact of passing gamefish status for these species (after you factor in licenses, travel, boat sales, fishing tackle and bait, hotels and a host of other things a solid recreational fishery brings to an area) is 150 times that which is provided the state by allowing the current commercial harvest.

They are exactly right. This bill will protect commercial fishermen while at the same time giving the state a much-needed economic boost. It will also reduce user-conflict between recreational fishermen and commercial fishermen and usher in a new era in North Carolina, where fishermen responsibly regulate their own take, thus reducing the chances that the federal government or outside environmental groups will come in and attempt to do it for us.

Most important of all, it will ensure our children and grandchildren will have access to the fishing and recreational resources that have made this state great. Anglers are encouraged to contact their legislators and urge them to pass this important North Carolina gamefish bill.