Proposed curbs dismay N.C. fishermen Federal biologists seek to halt overfishing

March 04, 1997|By knight-ridder news service

WASHINGTON - In shallow water several miles off North Carolina's coast, sea trout are spending the winter as they always do - packed in a tight, roiling ball perfectly suited for today's vacuum-like fishing trawlers.

But while fishermen off North Carolina report another bountiful crop, federal biologists see something far different, a "severely overfished" population that can be protected only by tough new fishing restrictions from Maine to Florida.

This comes as good news to New England, where sea trout has been hard to find for years, particularly the 10 pounds or bigger specimens that sport fishermen consider "trophies." But in much of the Middle Atlantic region and especially off North Carolina, where the fish thrive, the proposed standards have provoked anger from commercial fishermen.

The conflicts will come into sharp relief as public hearings Thursday in North Carolina are held to look into a new plan to restrict fishing for weakfish, as sea trout as also known.

Unlike previous fights where fishing interests of all stripes united, this time commercial fisherman from the South, who rely on the fish for their livelihoods, are arguing that the regulations harm them so that a small number of sport fisherman in New England can catch trophy-sized fish.

Throw in a legally contentious history, conservationists who feel the standards are too soft, anti-government types who chafe at any federal intervention, and consumers, who fear the price of sea trout will skyrocket, and the waters quickly become muddy.

To prevent that, the Fisheries Service wants to update, and substantially toughen, the plan currently in place. Among other things, the change calls for a 12-inch minimum size for sea trout; a large mesh size in nets so that younger fish won't be captured; and a "bycatch" limit of 150 pounds of sea trout for boats using nets with tighter mesh.

According to government statistics, the decline in weakfish is significant. Total landings have declined yearly from 78.6 million pounds in 1980 to 8.7 million pounds in 1995.

Sea trout grow and reproduce fast, but not fast enough when an estimated 80 percent is harvested each year, a rate that federal biologists say is about four times the rate that would protect and rebuild the stock.

If the proposal is adopted as written, it would rebuild the sea trout population in about five years.

But it would also mean a 74 percent reduction in commercial catches and a big hit to North Carolina's fishing industry.

Nearly 70 percent of the 8 million pounds of sea trout caught each year are taken off the North Carolina coast.

"Fishermen tell me, 'Why are you restricting us when there are so many fish out there?'" said Louis Daniel, a biologist with the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, who favors some additional protections.

"Anytime you're regulating a man's livelihood, the regulators will be viewed as doing something terrible," said Daniel, chairman of multistate task force involved in protecting weakfish stocks and who says he believes a more equitable solution can be forged.

The mix will be most volatile in North Carolina, where more jobs are at stake, where there is a strong environmental community and where anti-government feelings run deep. It is home to groups such as the North Carolina Fisheries Freedom Fighters and a politically power commercial fishing industry.

Daniel is one of many who believe the government is going too far to ensure large fish are found in upper New England, well beyond the normal range for sea trout.

"It would be like setting a standard so North Carolina gets cod or American lobster," Daniel said, noting that those species are only rarely found off the Carolina coast.

He also fears that commercial fishermen will accidentally catch, and then dump, thousands of dead sea trout overboard to comply with the new standard on bycatches.

The problem, Daniel said, is that the fishing off North Carolina is particularly rich, with dozens of species flocking together. There's no way, he says, a commercial fishing boat knows exactly what will show up in its nets.

The government, however, is insistent and offers scientific findings to back up its claim that strong action is needed. It this case, the government is using much the same rationale as was used to protect such species as bluefish, flounder and croaker. The government also has proposed new protections for swordfish whose population has fallen sharply."

"Weakfish have been overfished for a long time," said Paul Perra, a scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service who helped put together the plan for weakfish.

"We are not growing stock, not gaining in biomass ... and we are kind of concerned the fishery might collapse."

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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