Government moves slowly and often seems impenetrable. But when it lowers its guard and allows the public to address elected representatives directly, we witness one of the truest forms of the democratic process.
I was reminded of this on Feb. 2 when I attended a legislative hearing on the gamefish bill in North Carolina to protect red drum, spotted sea trout (speckled trout) and striped bass from commercial gill netting.
Representatives of commercial fishermen, who oppose the bill as a threat to their livelihoods, and recreational fishermen, who want to see the numbers of fish increase, were given a chance to state their cases. The bill would effectively ban gill netting for and commercial sale of these fish. It’s too early to say whether either side truly hit a home run with the committee during the hearing, but the recreational fishermen were better organized, outnumbered commercial representatives by 3-1, and delivered some of the more compelling comments.
A lobbyist, a seafood store owner and a radio personality spoke about how the bill would put hard-working commercial fishermen out of work and take red fish, speckled trout and striped bass off the plates of the public. They claimed the measure would essentially transfer rights to the three species as seafood from a majority of the state’s population to a small group of “wealthy, elitist recreational fishermen who live on the coast.”
Recreational fishing guides, store owners and a boat builder effectively countered these arguments by claiming their livelihoods also depend on these species, and that red fish, speckled trout and stripers only accounted for roughly two percent of the commercial fishing income from 2010 according to state figures. They also repeated state figures that the direct and indirect economic impact of recreational fishing for N.C. was over $2 billion, while commercial fishing represents a fraction of that.
They noted that gamefish status for these species has effectively worked in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana. Red fishing in Louisiana and South Carolina far surpasses that in North Carolina and Mississippi where gill netting for these species continues, they said. One charter boat captain put the disparity in stark contrast: “Anglers are leaving our state to catch our state fish.” The committee chairman publicly acknowledged another charter boat captain’s call to pay it forward so that his baby girl would have a chance to catch a redfish if she wants to when she gets older.
A recreational fisherman spoke about witnessing the decimation of the local fresh water herring fishery at the hands of mismanaged commercial fishing and the fear that the same could happen for these three species. He noted that aquaculture and other programs have made these species available to the public in seafood stores and restaurants in states where gamefish laws are in place.
Perhaps most poignantly, he touched on why recreational angling has such a universal appeal: “Angling is done to experience a moment between man and fish that cannot be duplicated. A moment so addictive, that thousands upon thousands seek it over and over, and pay to do it. Parents share it with their children. It is our heritage. The virtual world cannot duplicate it and it’s not available as an App on an iPad.”
At the end of the hearing, many of the recreational fishermen expressed confidence in having delivered a strong, united message that this bill would be an economic benefit by attracting more tourism dollars and making an economic engine even stronger. Representatives of the commercial side quietly expressed concern about the bill’s momentum before and after the hearing.
The Legislative Research Commission Committee on Marine Fisheries will discuss the issue again in March with no public comment. The stakes are high enough that both recreational and commercial fishing interests will likely be back.