It’s been a hot topic in this state for a while that gill nets are both important to the commercial fishing industry and highly controversial. I personally know a couple people involved in this debate, and have been following it with some interest, though I haven’t had a chance to really post anything on it until now. Which is timely, because apparently management decisions have been made.
I’ll go ahead and get my personal biases out of the way here in the beginning: I’m kind of a conscientious objector when it comes to gill nets. I’m of the opinion that there are better ways of commercial fishing in terms of bycath survival (I’ve been planning on posting about one of those methods for a while, so stay tuned for that), and I’ll be honest, a lot of my thoughts on gill netting come from a shark conservation point of view. That said, I also try to support local seafood whenever possible, and an outright gill net ban hurts a lot of local fishermen.
Like all fisheries issues, this is far from a black-and-white situation. While the need to protect endangered species is clearly a factor, what you also have happening in North Carolina is a long-running conflict between two stakeholder groups: commercial and recreational fishermen. This surprisingly even-handed article from ESPN (of all places) summarizes the conflict pretty well, particularly the opening paragraphs with the frustrated recreational fisherman finding gill nets in all his favorite spots. It appears that even in the vast sounds of North Carolina there may not be enough water to go around.
So is this an attempt to protect endangered species, or just an extension of the conflicts between recreational and commercial fishermen? Two factors make me suspicious of the motivations behind the attempt at banning gill nets. The first is the nature of the compromise management plan, according to the MFC the only plan could be agreed upon that would still allow gill netters to work. Reductions in gear size and placement can justifiably be said to lower the potential encounter rate between gill nets and non-target species, but what really strikes me is that gill netting is now restricted to weeknights. I’m wondering what the science behind that is. It’s not like sea turtles, sharks, and dolphins don’t venture into the sounds at night, and in fact the potential encounter rate is probably higher for turtles and sharks at night. There is one inhabitant of North Carolina’s sounds that is less likely to be encountered on weeknights, however: recreational fishermen.
Which brings me to the second caveat: the presence of the CCA in this debate. The CCA refers to themselves as a conservation group made up primarily of concerned recreational fishermen. Generally fishermen getting involved in conservation is a good thing, but this particular organization is viewed with some suspicion by both commercial fishermen and fisheries managers in North Carolina. Bluegrass Blue Crab over at Southern Fried Science got to the heart of the reasons why back in March. In some cases it appears that “the lobbying efforts of the CCA are a thinly veiled campaign against competing ocean uses.” It’s worth considering in this debate whether the pro-recreational agenda is more important to this organization than actual conservation.
Are legitimate concerns over conservation and endangered species being hijacked to further a turf war between recreational and commercial fishermen? And if so, is it worth taking an “ends justify the means” approach if it ultimately helps vulnerable species? In this case it may even be questionable whether it’s even making a difference for the species in question at all. This issue is probably far from over.