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Tough fishing regulations aim for real change


Greenville resident Billy Igoe fishes for flounder during a recent trip to the Pamlico Sound.


Nathan Summers

Monday, July 1, 2019

A bill making its way through the N.C. General Assembly could have anglers in eastern North Carolina remembering 2019 as a year of change, whether they like it or not.

House Bill 483, the Let them Spawn act, places strict limits on the catch of six severely overfished species popular among commercial and recreational fishers: southern flounder, spot, Atlantic croaker, striped mullet, southern kingfish (sea mullet) and bluefish.

The bill would allow the Division of Marine Fisheries to place size and daily bag limits on the fish and abbreviate seasons for catching them with the goal of allowing 75 percent of juvenile fish in each targeted species to reach maturity and spawn at least once.

The measure would mean devoted fishermen like Greenville resident Billy Igoe can’t catch as many fish in the short run, which he doesn’t like, in hopes populations will recover enough to fish them in the future, which he admitted he does like.

“There used to be a lot of everything. That’s not true anymore,” Igoe said last week as he inched his skiff from spot to spot along swaying grass lining the Pamlico Sound.

Like many eastern anglers, Igoe primarily targets flounder, one of the foremost species on the list, during the summer months in the sound. Even if the law limits him and others in the right now, he believes it can save the future of the fishery.

Asked if his average flounder even 10 years ago was bigger than now, Igoe said, “No question about it.”

House Bill 483 passed the House June 20 in a 58-47 vote, with local Reps. Greg Murphy voting against it, Chris Humphrey voting for it, and Kandie Smith not voting. It cleared a first reading in the state Senate and was referred to committee on June 24. It has seen no action since.

Gov. Roy Cooper would have to sign the bill if the Senate approves it. Then the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission would determine new restrictions.

According to Joe Albea, local recreational angler and host of the long-running television series, Carolina Outdoor Journal, the decisions should be coming in August unless the senate opts to table the bill, meaning it could be shelved indefinitely.

“It’s to allow these fish to get to a certain size to reproduce and restock the population. The population is down to the point that it’s necessary,” said Albea, a lifelong conservationist who added the measures would “absolutely” make a positive impact on the fishery. “Will it affect people in the short term? Yes, but in the long term it will be better for all of us.”

That doesn’t mean he is any happier than other recreational or commercial fishermen facing such strict measures, which in the case of flounder likely would an open season of merely a month for recreational anglers, Albea said.

The rest of the year will be a full closure on the fish.

“It’s a shame that it’s gotten to this point, but (recovery) is going to be up to the fish and we can’t control that,” he said. “Ten years ago it was known (the fish populations were declining), and they didn’t do anything about it. If they had done it then, we wouldn’t be facing what we are, which is a closure.”

Albea believes that if managed properly, species could show significant progress in three years, but he also said it could be as many as 10.

The numbers illustrate how tough it will be.

This year, there must be a 62 percent reduction in the state’s total flounder harvest, and next year that must grow to 72 percent, which will be the threshold for the foreseeable future.

Much like a measure earlier this season that put a ban on possession of striped bass west of the ferry lines on the Tar and Neuse rivers, this measure has its critics, primarily commercial anglers who believe the restrictions are aimed squarely at them and are merely another a means for getting their controversial gill nets out of the water permanently.

“If the bill passes, it’s historic because it’s pro-resource,” Albea said. “This state has an abysmal track record in managing our resource. These are management plans that work.”

Tim Gestwicki, CEO of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, also championed the passing of the bill through the N.C. House.

“We applaud the House members who were able to wade through all the noise and see this resource bill for what it is: a remedy founded on the most science-based, culturally sensitive and economically resilient thinking ever put before the state legislature,” Gestwicki said following the vote. “Fostering reproduction is the most basic tenet of population biology, which is the entire premise of this bill.”

According to the Wildlife Federation, in the last two decades the commercial decline of fish landed alone has been staggering and helped to define the six targeted species.

The depletion of Atlantic croaker (85 percent commercial decline), kingfish (54 percent), striped mullet (47 percent), spot (94 percent), southern flounder (88 percent) and bluefish (78 percent) combine to create a 79 percent total decline in that time.