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Marine Fisheries Commission tackles Observer Program funding, spotted seatrout, shrimp issues

MOREHEAD CITY – The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission will submit a report to the legislature that proposes to fund the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries’ Observer Program through commercial fishing license fee increases.

The commission endorsed the plan, which was brought forward by the commercial fishing industry and has the support of the Division of Marine Fisheries and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, at its meeting last week.

“I’m happy that the industry came forward with a proposal that not only provides the funding needed for the Observer Program, but allows the industry to work together to solve other commercial fishing funding issues that may arise in the future,” said Louis Daniel, division director.

Jerry Schill, interim executive director of the N.C. Fisheries Association, presented a proposal to establish a Commercial Fishing Resource Fund to receive revenues from a 100-percent increase in fees for several commercial fishing licenses. The Commercial Fishing Resources Fund would provide money for the Observer Program and other projects to develop sustainable commercial fishing, as approved by the commission and a proposed board of directors made up of representatives of several commercial fishing organizations.

The Observer Program collects information about commercial and recreational catches by observing fishing, either onboard fishermen’s vessels or from a division vessel operated in the vicinity of fishing activity. Observer coverage is required by the state’s sea turtle incidental take permit for the inshore gill net fisheries. Without this coverage, the fishery must close.

In 2013, the N.C. legislature appropriated $1.1 million for the Observer Program for fiscal year 2013-2014, and approved a 25-percent increase in commercial fishing license fees beginning in fiscal year 2014-2015 to fund the program in the future. The legislature instructed the division to seek public input and develop a plan for additional funding for the program.

The proposed 100-percent increase is based on the current license fees, not the upcoming 25-percent increase in fee. For instance, a resident Standard Commercial Fishing License now costs $200 per year, but the cost will increase to $250 in 2014-2015. The proposed 100-percent increase would bring the cost of a Standard Commercial Fishing License to $400 per year.

The commission  also adopted a supplement to the Spotted Seatrout Fishery Management Plan that will keep the 14-inch minimum size limit, four-fish recreational bag limit, 75-fish commercial trip limit and weekend commercial closure in waters managed jointly by the Division of Marine Fisheries and Wildlife Resources Commission (except in Albemarle and Currituck sounds). These regulations were in place prior to the Feb. 5 season closure that was implemented due to cold stun events. The regulations will go back into place when the season reopens June 15.

In other business, the commission:

·         Selected preferred management options for draft amendments to the state’s Shrimp, River Herring and Bay Scallop fishery management plans and voted to send the draft amendments to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the state legislature for review. The commission’s final approval of the draft plans is scheduled for November 2014. The commission’s preferred management options include:

–   For the draft shrimp plan, convene a stakeholder group to initiate a three-year study to test bycatch reduction devices to reduce bycatch to the extent practicable, with a 40-percent target reduction. The commission did not include language from an earlier proposal that indicated there would be consequences to not meeting a 40-percent bycatch reduction, and made it clear the 40-percent target reduction is a goal, not a mandate.

–   For the draft river herring plan, eliminate the discretionary harvest season and implement a rule in joint and coastal waters to prohibit the possession of river herring greater than six inches while fishing or boating, as well as remove alewife and blueback herring from the mutilated finfish rule.

–   For the draft bay scallop plan, manage waters south of Bogue Sound as a separate unit from Bogue Sound (currently waters south of Bogue Sound open based on sampling in Bogue Sound) and manage the southern waters based on the Division of Marine Fisheries’ judgment from field sampling; allow dredges to operate at a lower opening trigger than current management allows; allow harvest of bay scallops on aquaculture operations during closed public seasons and at greater daily quantities (this is currently allowed for clams and oysters on leases); and increase recreational harvest to seven days per week, but at a lower daily harvest limit.

Modified the dates of the commercial American shad season in the Albemarle Sound Management Area. The season had been scheduled to be shortened to March 18 – April 14 this year to meet harvest reduction requirements of the N.C. Sustainable Fishery Plan for American Shad. Several fishermen who spoke during the public comment period asked for the season to open earlier in the March instead. The commission modified the season dates to March 3-24, which will still meet the harvest reduction requirement.

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