Gill net closure delivers a tough economic blow to local fishermen
By JORDAN TOMBERLIN
the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries announced that,
effective Sept. 26, 2012 at 10 a.m., the shallow waters of the Pamlico
Sound would close to large-mesh gill net operations in an effort to
protect threatened and endangered sea turtles, the regulators
effectively shut down the commercial southern flounder fishery for the
remainder of the year.
The fishery, which operates under a
highly-monitored permit system, can be closed when the number of
encounters between turtles and nets exceeds prescribed limits.
This year, four interactions were observed, a number that was sufficient to prompt the fishery closure.
interactions involving live green turtles were reported near Rodanthe
on Sept. 21, and two interactions involving endangered Kemp’s ridley
turtles—one live and one dead—were reported near mainland Hyde County
on Sept. 20.
A few days later, announcement of the closure came down from state officials.
The closure was unexpected, and it’s hitting local fishermen where it hurts them most—their pocketbooks.
line,” said Steve Bailey, a commercial fisherman and the owner of Risky
Business Seafood, “[this closure] is going to cost me about $20,000.”
said that he sets nets every day during the flounder season, and, in
addition to selling the flounder in his seafood market, he said his
business aims to put away several thousand pounds of the fish each
But that won’t happen this year. Not if the closure
isn’t reversed. And many other local fishermen, Bailey said, will have
it much worse.
“I’m going to make it,” Bailey said. “But there
are a lot of guys around here who, fishing is all they do, and it’s
really going to hurt them.”
Tony Burbank, another local
commercial fisherman, who also works Avon Seafood in Hatteras, said he
estimates that he will lose about $1,000 per week as a result of the
closure. He also said that, through is work at the fish house, he knows
of at least seven or eight other fishermen who will lose the
Given that the commercial harvest of southern
flounder closes statewide on December 1, the most recent closure
will—if it isn’t reversed—mean that each of those fishermen will take
an estimated $9,000 loss.
When you consider the wider impacts
of that—a reduction in fish-house profits, fewer hours for fish house
employees, and a loss of stock for retailers like Bailey—you’re looking
at an estimated loss upwards of $100,000. And that’s a significant
amount of money, especially for a community about to enter the economic
doldrums of winter.
Not only is that a significant loss at a really bad time, it’s essentially money that can’t really be reclaimed elsewhere.
flounder—essentially the only species targeted by large-mesh gill net
operations in the Pamlico Sound—are highly seasonal, and they spend
their fall feeding in the warm, shallow waters of the sound before they
are pushed out into the ocean by annual drops in water
“Flounder are very seasonal,” Bailey
explained. “Nature tells them when it’s time to for them to go in the
ocean,” he said. And once that happens, it won’t matter whether the
fishery is open or not—there won’t be anything for them to catch.
“It would be like telling a charter fisherman that he can run trips January through March, but not May through July.”
problem is that federally-protected sea turtles apparently march to the
same biological drumbeat as the flounder, hanging out back in the
sound, feeding and enjoying the warm waters, until cooler temperatures
move them out to the ocean.
It’s hardly surprising then, that
sea turtles and flounder nets occasionally come into contact. And it is
perhaps equally unsurprising that these encounters prompted lawsuits
and restrictions aimed at ensuring the safety of sea turtles—all
species of which are federally listed as either threatened or
In 1999, as a result of “several instances of
fishery interactions with threatened and endangered sea turtles,” the
Pamlico Sound large-mesh gill net fishery was closed completely from
Sept. 1 through Nov. 30, by federal rule.
following year, the National Marine Fisheries Service set up a system
that allowed gill net fishermen to access limited areas of the fishery
during the closure.
That system relied on a series of what’s
known as incidental take permits—which allow for limited takes of
threatened or endangered species in the course of otherwise lawful
activity—and required that the fishery be highly monitored, both
through self-reporting practices and government observations.
this system, every fisherman granted a permit to fish during the
closure is required to report each week how many yards of net he
fishes, as well as any interactions he has with sea turtles.
addition, he must allow any of the 10 to 15 state observers that
monitor the fishery to accompany him on a trip, any time one asks to
go. Failure to allow an observer on the boat could result in revocation
of the permit.
The system allowed for a certain number of interactions with sea turtles.
total allowable catch numbers reflect the estimated number of
interactions the Marine Fisheries Service expects to occur between
turtles and fishermen, based on observed or reported interactions from
If the number of interactions that observers
report exceeds the number allowed under the permit, then the fishery
has to be shut down.
This year, there were actually no
official regulations. North Carolina’s incidental take permit expired
Dec. 31, 2010, and the application for renewal has been under review
since May of that year.
The National Marine Fisheries service
allowed the state to operate under the provisions specified in their
application. However, the National Marine Fisheries Service requested
more information from the state, and when the state re-filed its permit
application on Sept. 6 of this year, regulators included lower
available catch numbers for the fishery.
Under those most
recent catch limits, fishermen are allowed 173 interactions between
live green turtles and 86 interactions with dead green turtles; 16
interactions between live Kemp’s ridley turtles and eight interactions
with dead Kemp’s ridley turtles.
It was on those numbers that
the fishery was operating when the four interactions that prompted the
fishery closure were observed.
“The dead Kemp’s ridley is what
gave us the most trouble,” said Chris Batsavage, chief of the Protected
Resources Section at the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.
“It was definitely a worst-case scenario that we encountered a dead Kemp’s ridley in the first week [of observations].”
It was a worst-case scenario indeed.
of the fact that observers can’t be on every boat that fishes, every
day that it goes out, Marine Fisheries has an “extrapolation” process
that essentially determines—based on the percentage of the fishery that
is observed—how many interactions they’re not observing for every
interaction that they see.
The total number obtained from that process is what goes against the allowable catch.
example, if an observer sees one dead Kemp’s ridley turtle, and the
fishery is operating at 50 percent coverage, that one dead turtle
counts as two dead turtles.
However, if the fishery is operating at 10 percent coverage—as it was on Sept. 21—then that one dead Kemp’s ridley counts as 10.
other part of this “worst-case scenario” situation was the recent
reduction in the total allowable interactions for dead Kemp’s ridley
turtles—from 14 to eight under the new permit guidelines.
Essentially, that one turtle counted as 10, and the fishery was allowed only eight.
“This is the earliest we’ve ever had to close it,” Batsavage said, “but it has happened a couple times before.”
Batsavage said there’s a chance the fishery will re-open this year, but few fishermen have expressed much hope that it will.
“It would definitely help us out,” Bailey said, “but I just don’t see it happening.”
to Batsavage, the decision will depend on observation of water
temperatures, as well as reports of turtle sightings from field staff
and other observers working in the sound. He was not specific about
when, or if, the closure would be re-evaluated.