Game Fish Wars: Tales of the Tar Heel State
“There they go,” said Capt. Gary Dubiel, pointing to a pair of commercial fishing vessels headed out for the day as we stood fishing off his boat in Beaufort, North Carolina. “Those sons of bitches would catch everything in the ocean if they could, and our state legislature is only too happy to let them.” Not much bothers Capt. Dubiel, owner of Spec Fever Guide Service (www.specfever.com) in Oriental, North Carolina, so his outburst surprised me.
I’d originally come down from Virginia to chase albies, but the weather had turned harsh—as it so often does in North Carolina’s Outer Banks—and the wind had forced us to move behind an island and pursue specs instead. We landed a few and I even managed to land a nice flounder while we waited for the fierce wind to subside.
Just over Dubiel’s shoulder stood—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “leaned”—a dilapidated and listing old building with a nearly-collapsed tin roof that looked as though one good storm would finish it right off. “What’s that?” I asked. “Another shining example of good ol’ North Carolina fisheries management,” he answered wryly. “It’s what’s left of an old menhaden factory that closed because the menhaden fishery went into a steep decline here. Nothing like closing the door once the horse has left the barn,” he continued. “I’m holding my breath to see what becomes of North Carolina’s marine resources in the coming months; I have to admit, though, that I’m not very optimistic. The politicians here just don’t seem to get it when it comes to the value of sporting fisheries.”
Dubiel is by no means alone in his sentiments: Recreational and commercial anglers have long had a contentious relationship, but few jurisdictions are as hard-fought as is the Tar Heel State. The front lines of the next major engagement are currently forming: At issue is gamefish status for three of North Carolina’s most popular saltwater species.
The North Carolina Legislature is considering legislation that would grant red drum, stripers, and spotted sea trout better known as simply “specs” gamefish status; prohibit the harvest of these species by anything other than hook and line; and outlaw the sale of these fish to stores or restaurants. Proponents argue that the legislation would bolster the number of these species in state waters, thereby improving the fishery. Many marine conservationists believe this type of law is long overdue: North Carolina and Mississippi are the only Southeastern states that don’t afford protection for some or all of these fish. In 2007, the Bush administration awarded gamefish status to redfish and stripers in federal waters, which extend from 3 to 200 miles offshore. (State waters stretch from the shoreline to three miles offshore and are managed by each individual state.)
Why here, why now?
North Carolina stakeholders have argued over saltwater species management for decades—so why has this issue come to a head right now? If you ever read the news or follow current events, the two simple answers won’t surprise you: money and politics. Because the economy is in the doldrums and the unemployment rate remains high, every state in the nation is scrambling to uncover more revenue. Raising taxes in a sluggish economy can be political suicide, so state legislators across the country are slashing budgets, consolidating programs, and doing nearly everything they can to promote business and to encourage tourists to visit their state.
Yes, tourists are a boon to any jurisdiction, as they visit large and small towns alike, rarely leaving anything but money in their wake. Tourists generally require no state services and often pay hotel taxes that locals don’t even know about, much less pay. They frequent restaurants, stay in B&Bs, take in shows at local playhouses, and buy gifts or other items from local shops. Businesses that benefit from throngs of happy tourists range from professional fishing guides to antique stores to wineries. Even real-estate agents get into the act, hustling everything from timeshares to second homes with beachfront property.
The current fight over gamefish status in North Carolina will determine how the state’s natural resources are to be managed in the future. Many of those watching the case most closely include organizations like the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, the Coastal Reform Group, and the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, all of which encourage the fundamental shift in marine resources management that they believe the legislation represents. They have, not surprisingly, taken the side of recreational anglers—and yet they have made primarily economic and not conservation arguments in favor of the legislation. Simply put they believe it makes more financial sense to the state to save these fish and thus attract more tourists and improve fishing for recreational anglers.
A 2010 North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF) study titled “A Social and Economic Survey of Recreational Saltwater Anglers in North Carolina” estimated the impact of recreational anglers on the state’s economy at $1.6 billion—and that’s only scratching the surface, because that number doesn’t take into account durable goods like boats, fishing tackle, and other related items. The study estimated that nearly 430,000 recreational saltwater anglers fish from “for-hire” North Carolina vessels each year. Of these anglers, nearly 64 percent fished in either Dare or Carteret counties. Nevertheless, even with these facts in hand, NCDMF doesn’t support the legislation for gamefish status. Instead, officials released a statement on the issue which read, in part:
“While our concern is based on a variety of factors, the greatest issue is that we believe the action is contrary to the Fisheries Reform Act, our guiding legislation for managing North Carolina’s coastal fisheries. Based on this legislation, the division recommends strategies to manage the state’s resources for the benefit of all user groups. Designating gamefish status for any coastal species is a departure from this policy, giving the recreational sector preference over the commercial sector.”
Commercial anglers agree with the NCDMF and see the bill as a direct threat to their profitability and way of life. Indeed, commercial fishing has a long and proud tradition in North Carolina and it’s not uncommon to find second and third generation commercial anglers plying the state’s coastal waters. “Commercial anglers are hardworking folks who are trying to pay their bills and provide for their children,” says Sean McKeon, president of the North Carolina Fisherman’s Association. “We’re also the guys who provide seafood to your local markets.” McKeon believes that well-meaning people who enjoy the ocean simply don’t understand the lives of those who make a living from it: “Recreational anglers are just out there for fun. I ask you–what kind of a person wants to put another guy out of business just so he can have more fun? A greedy one, that’s who: Recreational anglers already account for more than 70 percent of the harvest of those gamefish.”
Is McKeon correct? According to the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF), the total combined commercial take of redfish, spotted sea trout, and stripers accounted for approximately two percent of the value of commercial landings from 2001-2010. Of that number, only 87 commercial anglers made more than $2,000 for their efforts on harvesting these three species, and fewer than 30 commercial anglers had landings valued at $10,000 or more. McKeon claims that these statistics are misleading because they include shellfish and shrimp, which make up a huge part of the total overall commercial landings. He argues that if you remove shellfish and shrimp from the count and only compare finfish landings, the percentage of sales would be much larger.
Conservationist and recreational angling groups lobbying North Carolina legislators to pass the bill have pushed an economic rather than an environmental argument in its favor: They contend that, as noted in the 2010 NCDMF study, commercial fishing revenues pale in comparison to what recreational anglers bring to the table. “The sad thing is that many North Carolina political leaders have no idea of the value of placing gamefish status on species like red drum, speckled trout, and stripers,” says Dean Philips of the Coastal Reform Group. “Not setting these fish aside for protection from commercial harvest is like selling gold at scrap metal prices.”
Dick Hamilton, a former director of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and coordinator for the Camo Coalition, a subdivision of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, draws a compelling corollary: “Every freshwater fish in North Carolina has gamefish status, whereas none of the saltwater species enjoy this protection. Imagine what our natural resources would look like if we still allowed commercial harvest of ducks, deer, and bear?”
Legislation will soon be put forward by Senator Jeff Tarte (R-Mecklenburg) the lead sponsor of the bill and is joined by Sentors Tom Goolsby (R-New Hanover) and Neal Hunt (R-Wake) as co-sponsors. The legislation has strong support from Democrats and Republicans alike, but the fight is far from over.
No doubt each side of gamefish status bill will be marshaling its forces to encourage legislatures to act while in legislative session this week. Like the unpredictable gusts off the North Carolina coast, no one knows which way the political winds will blow, but one thing is certain: Rough seas lie ahead.
North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries
www.ncfisheries.net (800) 682-2632
North Carolina Fisheries Association
www.ncfish.org (252) 745-0225
North Carolina Wildlife Federation-Camo Coalition
www.ncwf.org (919) 833-1923
Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina
www.ccanc.org (919) 781-3474