Daniel: Reforms would rebuild depleted fish stocks

032219 Dr. Louis Daniel

Dr. Louis Daniel, a contractor for the N.C. Wildlife Federation, discusses proposed legislation aimed at rebuilding depleted fish stocks during a meeting of the Albemarle Conservation and Wildlife Chapter at the Villa Restaurant in Elizabeth City, Thursday.


By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Monday, March 25, 2019

A former director of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries asked a local wildlife group last week to seek state lawmakers’ support for three proposed fishing regulations aimed at rebuilding depleted fish stocks.

Louis Daniel, who spent more than two decades with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and was director of the division for 10 years, told the Albemarle Conservation and Wildlife Chapter in Elizabeth City Thursday that current regulations have not done enough to protect fish species such as southern flounder.

Daniel said the 1997 N.C. Fisheries Reform Act “has been a monumental failure to replenish our fish stocks, and the reason for that is politics.” Rules are adopted that “nibble around the edges” of what needs to be done but the changes that could really make a difference are never approved, he said.

“Does anybody think they’re seeing more fish than they did 22 years ago?” Daniel asked those attending the meeting at the Villa Restaurant. “Anybody even close to seeing the same amount of fish that you saw 22 years ago?”

When no hands went up, Daniel said that was what he had expected.

Daniel said the N.C. Wildlife Federation — the organization he works for as a contractor and that Albemarle Conservation and Wildlife is part of — does not take the side of recreational fishermen or commercial fishermen but rather seeks to protect the state’s fish resources for the benefit of the public.

“That’s why I now work for the N.C. Wildlife Federation — because they are committed to protecting the resource,” Daniel said.

In his more than two decades as a biologist with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, Daniel said, “We haven’t rebuilt — restored — one fish. Not one.”

“We’ve got a problem and it’s just going downhill,” Daniel said. “We’re not seeing any improvement in these resources.”

Daniel said it’s now rare to see a flounder in North Carolina waters that’s over 2 years old. He said he used to see flounder in the state’s catch that were 5, 6 or 7 years old.

Southern flounder mature at 22 inches but the size limit in North Carolina is 15 inches, Daniel said. The limit doesn’t allow a flounder to have a chance to spawn at least once before it’s harvested, he said.

Farmers who raise chickens to sell eggs realize that some eggs have to hatch chickens if they’re going to stay in business, Daniel said.

He repeatedly returned to the theme of fish not being allowed to reproduce and how that decimates fish stocks. The river herring fishery was destroyed by the commercial sale of herring roe, he said.

Currently, overfishing of flounder is preventing flounder from spawning, according to Daniel.

Daniel said the Wildlife Federation is seeking support in the N.C. General Assembly for three pieces of legislation. One bill would restrict issuance of commercial fishing licenses to only “bonafide commercial fishermen” and effectively end recreational use of commercial fishing gear, he said.

A second “let ‘em spawn bill” would set size limits for fish species that are caught, Daniel said. The limits would give the fish an opportunity to spawn before they are harvested

The third bill would limit shrimp trawling, Daniel said. It would limit trawling to three days a week and impose a ban on nighttime trawling.

Daniel said shrimp trawlers bring in significantly more pounds of “bycatch” — fish caught unintentionally in the process of catching shrimp — than they do shrimp. Most of the bycatch consists of fish that haven’t yet matured, he said.

“It’s not a shrimp fishery,” Daniel said. “It’s a juvenile fish fishery with shrimp as a bycatch.”

Asked about the N.C. Wildlife Federation proposals, N.C. Fisheries Association Executive Director Glenn Skinner said Friday that the association agrees with the goal of reducing bycatch. However, he believes the federation plan would be detrimental to the shrimping industry without effectively reducing bycatch.

“These measures, although they sound great on paper, there’s no way to show they would do what the Wildlife Federation says they would do,” Skinner said.

Significant portions of the state’s waters have already been closed to shrimping and the state has adopted requirements for bycatch-reduction devices, he said.

“We have already reduced bycatch significantly, and if we need to reduce it more just give us time and we’ll figure out a way to do it,” Skinner said.

Skinner also questioned the wisdom of increasing size limits for fish before they can be harvested. He said raising size limits on southern flounder will backfire because the females grow larger than the males and the harvest will end up consisting entirely of females.

“That’s one of the stupidest things you could do,” Skinner said.

The N.C. Fisheries Association also opposes preventing people from being able to get licenses to use commercial gear, according to Skinner.

“We’ve always opposed taking away the right for folks to use this commercial gear,” he said.

Daniel, however, says ending recreational netting of fish is important.

“We’ve got to have these licenses in the hands of people who know what they’re doing,” he said.

But Daniel acknowledged “there are going to be people that don’t like” the restriction.

Daniel said the license reform proposal from the Wildlife Federation would also require a license for recreational harvesting of blue crab, shrimp and oysters.

“We are not anti-commercial fishing,” Daniel said, noting the federation is not proposing a net ban or trying to get anything designated as a game fish.

He said he does support the local shrimp trawlers, though he added “I don’t give a damn about out-of-state trawlers.”

Daniel said the statewide organization needs strong support from its chapters, such as the Albemarle Conservation and Wildlife group.

“These chapters are critically important to what we’re trying to do,” Daniel said.