Fishermen ask that science, not assumptions, be basis for regulations
By Susan West sentinel Staff
Outer Banks sentinel
"Please at least have the dignity of absolute scientific proof when you make decisions that will take away our livelihood," commercial fisherman Reuben Trant implored fisheries managers Wednesday evening during a meeting in Manteo.
The meeting presented fishermen the opportunity to comment on new proposals for the regulation of the gray trout, also called weakfish, fishery. Brad Spear, fisheries management plan coordinator for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), came to Dare County to record comments on the commission's draft addendum to the weakfish interstate management plan. NC Division of Marine Fisheries biologists, Louis Daniel and Lee Paramore accompanied Spear.
The draft addendum contains management options for reducing the fishing mortality level for gray trout. Spear explained that while the scientists on the ASMFC's weakfish technical committee have recommended a 50 percent reduction in fishing mortality, the commission's weakfish management board has the final say on the amount of reduction.
The small group assembled in the meeting room at Roanoke Island Festival Park questioned the need for ASMFC to move forward with additional restrictions on fishing when the agency has acknowledged that natural mortality is the source of concern for the gray trout stock. Studies have indicated that decreased forage or increased predation might explain the increase in natural mortality.
Charter boat captain Reese Stecher said, "The fact that the weakfish technical committee didn't factor in the impact of predators on the gray trout population just doesn't make good science."
Fishermen at the meeting identified dogsharks, striped bass, and cormorants as significant predators. "If you look at your graph showing a decrease in gray trout, I think you'd see that it correlates pretty close to the time striped bass rebounded and to the time the dogshark fishery was shut down," said Rick Scarborough, charter boat captain and commercial fisherman from Buxton.
Stecher added, "When dogshark fishing was cut off, problems developed for other fisheries, and those ramifications were never examined. There needs to be some communication between the technical committees for the different species."
All of the fishermen testified to the density of the dogshark population. "This past winter was one of the worst for fishing. The weather kept us in. I could only get out three days in January and four in February, and when I did get out I had to steam 28 miles, almost to Drum Inlet, to get out of the dogs," said Dale Farrow, a commercial fisherman who works out of Hatteras.
Stecher said that it's not uncommon to cut open a rockfish in October and find a dozen or more little trout in its belly. The fishermen also recommended that managers come out on the boats to witness the gluttony of cormorants feasting on trout. "There's so many of them, the sky turns black," described Farrow.
Fishermen also commented on the dynamic ocean ecology. "There're no constants in fishing. Things are changing out there," said commercial fisherman Jeff Oden from Hatteras. "North Carolina is now number one in recreational landings of trout in the nation, and those anglers in Delaware Bay are just not going to catch trophy fish they way they once did."
Scarborough agreed that the ocean environment is changing, and said that Hatteras Island isn't seeing a flow of fish to the south beach in the winter. "Another thing to consider is that Hurricane Isabel scoured the bottom, and without the bottom structure, the fish aren't holding up where they used to," he said.
Bill Foster of Hatteras directed his comments towards data collection. "Every proposed regulation needs to be viewed as a scientific experiment," said Foster. "We need to leave regulations in place for a minimum of five years so that we can compare data collected over time and over the range of the species, and we need to analyze data without bringing assumptions into the model."
"The draft addendum document contains no information on why the technical committee recommended a fifty percent reduction in fishing mortality," Foster continued. "What analysis shows how this recommendation ties into science? Technical committee meetings aren't taped and there's no detailed reports, so it's difficult to prove that these recommendations are based on the best available information."
"It's a sin and a shame that we have to come to a meeting like this," said Billy Carl Tillett of Moon Tillett Fish Company in Wanchese. "Of course commercial landings have gone down. In 1995, the flynet fishery south of Hatteras was closed, the mesh size for gillnets and trawls was increased, culling panels in haul seines were required, and the minimum size limit was increased. North Carolina took a 42 percent reduction in landings with those rules, more than any other state."
Tillett looked at the gillnetters seated in the meeting room and said, "What we've got is bad enough, but it's going to get worse with this sorry recommendation. They are going to choke you down until you can't go fishing."
The gillnetters agreed with Tillett's assessment. "The small-time commercial fisherman is history in this state. The state is strangling an industry that has existed since colonial times," said Trant, the commercial fisherman from Hatteras.
"Our industry is on the brink right now," agreed Oden. "The proposals are going to have impacts across the board, and we'll be strangled until there's not a single fishhouse left in North Carolina."
"The document you've given us doesn't justify these measures," concluded Tillett. "I'd rather see North Carolina not comply with the ASMFC plan than to have to be a part of this. We're just getting set up so that when the fish come back, we won't be allowed to catch them."
The period for public comment on the draft addendum ends on Oct. 21, 2005. The draft and instructions for submitting comments can be found on the ASMFC website, http://www.asmfc.org