Commercially and recreationally valuable fish, including Atlantic croaker, spot, and weakfish, are in trouble on our coast. The amount of fish caught accidentally and then discarded dead in the shrimp trawl fishery, otherwise known as bycatch, is unsustainably high in North Carolina’s sounds and ocean waters. Hundreds of millions of young fishes, that might otherwise be caught when mature by fishermen, are killed and tossed by shrimp trawls each year. If steps are taken now to lessen this accidental waste and trawl responsibly, future generations will still be able to fish off our coast.
A petition pending now before the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission (“MFC”) seeks to do just that. In November 2016, the N.C. Wildlife Federation petitioned the Commission to protect habitat areas vital to these fish and others by designating these habitats as special secondary nursery areas and reducing shrimp trawling in these areas to reduce bycatch.
According to the state Division of Marine Fisheries (“DMF”) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, many fish stocks in North Carolina waters are depressed, declining, or are at low levels of abundance. These conditions have persisted for decades. The intent of the petition is to allow the culturally significant shrimp trawl fishery to continue to operate in our state’s waters, while reducing the impacts this industry has on other stocks of fish and other fisheries
The science is clear: shrimp trawl bycatch kills large numbers of non-target species and is a significant problem that must be addressed. North Carolina is the only state on the east coast that still allows trawling in its inshore waters. The petition seeks to strike a balance between the needs of the commercial shrimping industry and protecting the juvenile fish that are discarded as bycatch.
New data indicate that the numbers of juvenile fish that die in shrimp trawling activities in North Carolina approach and may exceed the total US east coast harvest of these fishes. The numbers of spot, Atlantic croaker, and weakfish alone that are discarded in the shrimp trawl fishery are in the hundreds of millions of fish. These are species with extraordinary economic significance to the commercial pound net, gill net, and fish trawl fisheries and the recreational fishery. Further, these are fishes, along with shrimp, that provide ecosystems value as forage for other species in coastal North Carolina. The positive economic impact of just these three species to all sectors of the fishing industry, if allowed to grow and spawn, would mitigate any impacts of the petition to the commercial shrimp trawl fishery and provide positive economic impacts to the recreational fishery and businesses they support.
Current data suggests weakfish, Atlantic croaker, and spot are at low levels of abundance, but historically were the anchor of the near shore coastal fisheries. Anglers from beach, boat, and pier along with a fleet of small gill net boats and other commercial interests once harvested these fish by the millions of pounds. Landings of these three fish in North Carolina have steadily declined from 28.6 million pounds in 1981 to 14.8 million pounds in 1995 to 4.4 million pounds in 2014. Much of the directed harvest of spot and croaker are now juvenile fish.
Stock assessments, that are generated to determine the overall health of these species, lack reliable estimates of shrimp trawl bycatch. This lack of information results in uncertainty, rendering estimates of stock health as uncertain and likely optimistic. All three species are a significant component of the shrimp trawl bycatch--juvenile fishes that have survived in protected nursery areas only to succumb to shrimp trawl bycatch in unprotected habitats before reaching adulthood and having the opportunity to reproduce. In the face of this clear decline in stocks and some uncertainty in what is contributing to the decline, the petition advances a precautionary approach to reducing bycatch, achieving sustainable harvests, and protecting habitat.
Designating state waters as special secondary nursery areas would recognize that the estuarine and coastal ocean system provides important habitat for numerous fishes and crustaceans and provide a mechanism to reduce trawling in these areas where juvenile fish are abundant. DMF and other publicly-available data support this designation.
If approved, the petition will begin a process to recognize the nursery area function of all our near shore coastal and estuarine waters and implement measures to reduce the excessive bycatch of many valuable fish. The ultimate goal of the petition is to protect these juvenile fish to adulthood so that may reproduce and rebuild these depleted resources for the benefit of all North Carolinians. We encourage the MFC to adopt the petition on February 16.
Louis Daniel is the former Director of the NC Division of Marine Fisheries. Jack Travelsted is the former Commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. They are both marine fisheries biologist with over 60 years of professional fisheries management experience between them.