In a mistake that was entirely predictable, the state's Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) has allowed the use of large trawl nets among large schools of striped bass. And, for the third time in less than three weeks, a massive striped bass kill has occurred. The latest example of "regulatory dead discards" was photographed from a helicopter off Oregon Inlet this week and was again evidenced by a long trail of dead striped bass in the vicinity of commercial trawlers. The latest kill was four miles long and a half-mile wide, and consisted of thousands of dead stripers, many of which were of the minimum legal size of 28 inches, that were dumped at sea after being snared and culled by commercial boats.
In response to the first two documented striper kills that occurred in mid-January, the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) recently only slightly modified ocean trawl regulations in a belated effort to avoid another tragic slaughter. On Jan. 21, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries implemented regulatory changes to address discards of striped bass in the commercial trawl fishery. The division replaced the previous 50-fish-per-day commercial trip limit with a 2,000-pound-per-day trip limit to reduce high-grading, but the results were the same.
To avoid regulatory discards, the new regulations allow commercial trawl fishermen to transfer trip limits to other fishing vessels that hold a striped bass ocean fishing permit for the commercial trawl fishery. This way, all the fish will be landed and count against the commercial quota. The intent was to avoid excessive discards of dead striped bass and eliminate the wanton waste of a public resource. This strategy failed miserably as the trawl fishery reopened on February 3rd and another massive fish kill occurred.
"You can't allow the use of deadly, indiscriminate and highly destructive trawl nets among large schools of striped bass," said Jay Dail, CCA North Carolina chairman. "The MFC knows this will happen, yet continues to allow this gear among these schools of valuable fish. It shows how antiquated our management system is - at the very least they should be requiring more selective gear that doesn't generate tons of wanton waste."
CCA North Carolina is considering asking the NC Marine Fisheries Commission to completely eliminate trawling as a permissible fishing gear for striped bass. If they do not accept that, anglers will have no choice but to ask that these valuable fish be designated a gamefish and removed from the market entirely.
"This is what happens when you allow this destructive gear in this area - the results are never going to change. What's driving this slaughter is placing a bounty on the head of every fish out there, creating a gold rush atmosphere," said Stephen Ammons, CCA North Carolina executive director. "If you take away the dollar incentive, the fish might stand a chance."
The past six months have been filled with bad news for striped bass. In addition to the slaughters off North Carolina, Maryland state officials pulled the plug last week on the state's gillnet season after thousands of pounds of dead bass were pulled from illegal nets in the Chesapeake Bay. The NC MFC should have followed suit and closed the trawl fishery at the first sign of wanton waste. Also, earlier this year, anglers and conservationists all along the East Coast narrowly beat back plans to increase the commercial harvest of striped bass, citing problems with the stock related to rampant poaching and disease in the species primary nursery ground, Chesapeake Bay.
"We can't keep abusing striped bass like this or we'll end up right back in the darkest days of the 1980s when the entire fishery was closed down," said Jim Hardin, President of CCA North Carolina. "It is time to chart a new course for this fishery."