North Carolina’s top fisheries official seemed to signal a new era of environmental awareness in the state this week, as he explained a settlement on the lawsuit over sea turtle and gill net interactions and told fishermen to be prepared to face further restrictions in NC due to the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
“Can you imagine the Pamlico Sound as a no wake zone to protect sea turtles?” Dr. Louis Daniel, director of the NC Division of Marine Fisheries asked at one point in a press conference, in an attempt to illustrate the seriousness of the state’s ongoing efforts to comply with the ESA.
“I think it’s important for people (in our state) to understand the ESA act is a very important piece of legislation,” said Dr. Daniel. “In the ESA you are guilty until proven innocent. If you don’t have the information to prove (unlawful interactions) aren’t happening they will close you down.”
Dr. Daniel held the press conference to defend the settlement of the sea turtle lawsuit, which was resolved through mediation after the state agreed to stronger restrictions on large mesh gill nets. Those restrictions included limiting the number of days gill netters could fish, changing the length and manner gill nets were fished to help sea turtles escape from them, and making large mesh gill netting basically a night-time operation.
“Their observation was that turtles tend to be less active during the night,” said Dr. Daniel, referring to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center which brought the lawsuit against the state with the help of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.
The fact that North Carolina is at long last addressing the issue of gill nets at all is a sign of changing times in the state’s approach to marine fisheries. It is generally accepted among environmentalists and recreational anglers that NC is the last holdout among Atlantic and Gulf Coast states as far as limiting excessive commercial fishing netting in inshore waters.
Texas banned monofilament gill nets in 1981 and ended all types of commercial netting in saltwater in 1988. Florida held a public vote in 1994 and 72 percent of the public voted to ban gill nets and all entangling nets from inshore waters. Even next-door neighbors Virginia and South Carolina have long had far more stringent inshore net regulations than NC.
“We definitely have more gill nets in inside waters than any other state on the east coast of the US,” said Dr. Daniel.
Dr. Daniel indicated that the problems arising from North Carolina’s inshore net interactions did not stop with sea turtles.
“We’ve got issues related to bottlenosed dolphins, we have issues related to birds, and eventually we will have issues with Atlantic sturgeon,” said Dr. Daniel. “This is just the beginning of the types of things we’re going to be dealing with.”
Daniel said that the state will be monitoring gill net interactions closely from now on.
“Marine patrol will be actively enforcing these rules and they will be out on the water,” he said. “We’ve also got folks on the ground and also we rely on the public to call in when things don’t look quite right. We have emphasized to the fishermen how important it is for them to call in their interactions, but it is my hope that we are going to see a decrease in interactions.”
For more information on NC fishing see my blog A Dash Of Salty