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Net ban comes with costs, victories

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Greenville resident and avid Tar River fisherman Adam Corey holds a striped bass caught on a 2017 excursion on his boat.

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Commercial gill nets are being lifted out of a large section of coastal North Carolina waters.

The nets are being raised not merely to be emptied of their contents and dropped again; they have been banned for two years with the hope that some of the region’s most prized fish will once more become self-sustaining.

In a 5-4 vote by the Marine Fisheries Commission, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries was prompted on Wednesday to enact a net ban that comes on the heels of another recent vote to place a possession ban on striped bass, or rockfish, for both commercial and recreational anglers in the same region — west of the ferry lines on the Pamlico and Neuse rivers.

Without the nets, it is hoped striped bass can have uninterrupted access to spawn.

The new ban on nets, coupled with the moratorium on striped bass during the proposed two-year period, creates potential effects on the commercial fishing industry that operates most of the nets, the guides who make a living off clients who often expect to keep what they catch, including striped bass, and on local tackle shops that potentially will see sales dip with less fishermen on the water during that time.

While there are consequences, some seethe ban as a necessity and a chance to foster a renewed wild population of one of the state’s iconic fish.

“It’s a positive vote for the resource,” said lifelong angler and conservationist Joe Albea, host of the television show Carolina Outdoor Journal, who acknowledged the measure will come at a cost to both professional and recreational anglers. “It’s a huge day, as far as I’m concerned. We’re finally moving in the right direction in managing fish.

“In the many years I’ve been involved with marine fisheries, this is the first significant reduction in gear (permitted for use by commercial netters),” Albea said.

The new measure will put a ban on gill netting — an embattled practice already outlawed in most coastal states because of its propensity for depleting species other than those targeted by the nets, including striped bass — west of the ferry lines from Bayview to Aurora on the Pamlico and from Minesott Beach to Cherry Branch on the Neuse.

Albea said he expects the commercial fishermen to try to block the ban. Some of those anglers reportedly already have promised to seek legal action against the regulations, which are expected to be set in motion on Monday.

The new regulations on rockfish will run concurrently with the net ban. The possession ban on the fish serves the entire Central Southern Management Area, which runs from just south of Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks to the South Carolina state line.

The ban also includes the Pungo, Bay and White Oak rivers. A similar no-possession rule already is in effect on the Cape Fear River.

For the moment, Tar River and other inland water anglers — including Bear Creek, Chicod Creek and Tranters Creek on the Tar, Chocowinity Bay and the Trent River and the freshwater section of the Neuse —can keep one striped bass over 26 inches in length, though that could change soon.

The focus of the new regulations is on what are believed to be two wild classes of striped bass from 2014 and 15, which suggest the possibility of a self-sustained, migratory population to grow from what has become largely hatchery fish in the Tar, Pamlico and Neuse river systems.

“Research has shown that striped bass in the Central Southern Management Area are not a self-sustaining population and that fishermen are mainly catching hatchery-raised fish; however, data suggest there have been two recent naturally spawned year classes,” the Division of Marine Fisheries said in a statement on the changes. “The no-possession management measure will offer additional protection for those non-hatchery fish and protect larger females which could increase natural spawning stock biomass.”

Striped bass are believed to be mature for breeding at the age of four. The hope is the two-year ban will allow those fish a chance to create even more natives in the population.

“There is no net you can put out there that won’t interact with stripers,” Albea said, hinting there could also be hook restrictions coming to further limit fish mortality.

Albea and other local fishermen also are proposing new regulations on spotted sea (speckled) trout, which they believe will benefit anglers and fish.

Despite the potential negative effects in the short term, many recreational anglers hope the net and possession bans will be big steps toward reversing the fortunes of the striped bass population, which in recent years has seen very poor returns even of stocked fish and large numbers of “cryptic mortality,” or fish that are simply disappearing from the population.

Although Albea agrees the moratorium could spell a difficult two years for fishermen, he said the move is long overdue.

Contact Nathan Summers at nsummers@reflector.com, 252-329-9595 and follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.

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