One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Whose Fish?

Sundae Horn
Pattie Plyler, Bill Evans, Erick O'Neal and Hardy Plyler all traveled to Raleigh in support of Ocracoke Working Watermen's Association.
Pattie Plyler, Bill Evans, Erick O'Neal and Hardy Plyler all traveled to Raleigh in support of Ocracoke Working Watermen's Association.

The fight over spotted seatrout, striped bass, and red drum continues.

Fourteen Ocracoke watermen and their supporters traveled to Raleigh last week to attend a public hearing about NC House Bill 983, which would, among other things, designate three species of fish as gamefish only. Basically, that means that our commercial watermen couldn’t catch or sell these fish, and you wouldn’t ever find them on a menu.

These fish are red drum, spotted seatrout, and striped bass. Have you noticed what’s on special today at Ocracoke restaurants? Yep. You guessed it. These are tasty fish. Red drum wins the island's popularity contest.

“For our fish house on Ocracoke hands-down our biggest seller is red drum," said Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association president David Hilton. "Drum and flounder are about 60-70% of a year’s income for some of our local guys.”

The watermen have been fighting against the tide of gamefish bills for several years. 

“No data support that removing commercials fisheries will improve recreational fisheries,” Hilton said. “So taking these fish from the commercial fishermen just means that consumers can’t buy them and restaurants can’t serve them.”

Hilton says this is unfair, not just to the commercial fishermen he represents, but to all NC residents and visitors.

“The fisheries are a state resource,” he said. “Red Drum is our official state fish – shouldn’t all citizens have access to it?”

At last week’s hearing, Ocracoke watermen Hardy Plyler, Bill Evans, Beaver Tillett, Erick O’Neal, Farris O’Neal, Wade Austin, Ernie Doshier, James Barrie Gaskill, Dan Garrish, and Morty Gaskill joined nearly 400 other commercial fishermen and seafood wholesalers and retailers to show the NC House of Representatives that this is a vital issue to coastal communities. Pattie Plyler was there to represent the retail Ocracoke Seafood Company, and Ocracoke restaurant owner Scott MacNally, along with Sarah Batchelor, went to show support for the watermen who provide fresh, local seafood for restaurants. 

Hardy was allowed two minutes to speak on behalf of his livelihood and his community. Morty Gaskill was also given two minutes to read a statement prepared by David Hilton. Nineteen year-old Morty introduced himself as “a part-time commercial fisherman and a full time student at NC State studying marine fisheries science.”

Hardy says the most important thing that watermen need to do is “educate the public” about this issue. 

“We need to clear up the misconceptions. Gamefish designation will not help these fish,” he said. “The Division of Marine Fisheries’ position is that gamefish status will not improve stocks or guarantee sustainable harvest in the future.”

The Fisheries Reform Act of 1997 declares that the marine fisheries should “balance the commercial and recreational interests.” OWWA’s position is that gamefish status for these species would not be consistent with the law,” said Plyler.

HB 983 is not supported by the NC Marine Fisheries Division, which is opposed to any bill that would designate any species as gamefish only. 

According to public information officer Patricia Smith, this legislation would be contrary to the 1997 fisheries reform act and “is not the way to manage fisheries.”

“We have concerns about this bill,” she said. “It’s a departure from our current policy. We manage the fisheries for all user groups and we try to do it fairly. The resource should be able to benefit all user groups.”

Smith emphasized that this bill would not be saving any species in danger of being overfished.

“Our concerns with these species would not be addressed by making them gamefish,” she said. “This is not a resource issue; it’s an allocation issue. Who gets the fish?” 

When I read to her the statement on the CCA’s homepage, (“The bill…. would help end over-fishing and bring North Carolina in compliance with the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997.”) Smith sighed and said, “We have a different view on that." 

The DMF issued a review of HB983 that recommends that they continue to manage the fisheries for all user groups. The DMF is not buying what the CCA is selling, so why are our legislators? 

The DMF has over 200 employees on the state payroll – why would our elected officials ignore the recommendations of a state agency to listen to a small (though well-funded) private organization instead?

“People need to understand that this bill is about a few elitists getting all the fish for themselves,” Hardy said. 

HB 983 is backed by the Coastal Conservation Association, a non-profit lobbying group dedicated to promoting gamefish status bills and net-bans. (I had a long chat with the director of the North Carolina chapter of the CCA – more on him later.) The bill was introduced to the NC House by sponsors Tom Murry –R, Wake County; John Bell – R, Craven ,Wayne, Lenoir and Greene counties;  and Michael Wray – D, Halifax and Northampton counties.

Smith said that DMF has sent packages with their review and statement to legislators who’ve requested it. As of last week when I spoke to her, the legislative committee had not requested that the DMF speak to them about the bill.

Although Rep. Murry and Rep. Bell ignored my calls and emails, I did speak to Deans Eatman, the intern who answers the phone for Rep. Wray. I asked him to ask Rep. Wray why he sponsored HB 983 and why he thought it was in the best interests of North Carolinians to designate these three fish as gamefish only. Deans emailed me later with this answer:

“Red drum, striped bass, and speckled trout made up less than 1% of the total commercial catch in North Carolina in 2011. Meanwhile, that same combination made up nearly 20% of the total recreational catch in the state. Rep. Wray hopes that through the passage of HB983, these three species of fish, which are monumentally important to the continued growth of the recreational fishing industry will be designated for such while other species which are equally as important to the commercial fishing industry will remain open to commercial fisherman.” 

Beautiful view from the Fish House
Beautiful view from the Fish House

I wrote back asking a some questions about the report from the Marine Fishiries Division, and asking if he was aware that our commercial fishermen consider these fish “monumentally important” to their livelihoods. 

Neither Wray, nor his friendly intern, have written back.

Is it perhaps because I was not convincingly unbiased?

Let’s talk some more about how this bill would affect Ocracoke.

Not everybody can afford to come to the coast, rent or own a boat or a four-wheel drive, and catch their own. NC watermen believe that visitors to the coast and people inland should also get the chance to enjoy these species.

The Ocracoke fish house is directly tied to tourism. Hardy points out that the whole community benefits from the quaint fishing village atmosphere the Seafood Market creates. Visitors and locals frequent its counter to find the freshest seafood for their home-cooked meals. Local restaurants buy fish from the fish house or directly from the watermen themselves. Some of the Ocracoke Fresh catch goes to wholesale markets off the island.

“The people who come to the retail store [Ocracoke Seafood Company] appreciate that we’re here,” David said. “They want to support the local harvest, they support our retail, and they support our restaurants. It’s good for tourism when visitors get a fresh, local product.”

In 2011, the NC Division of Tourism did a “Regional Travel Summary” showing how visitors to the state’s various regions spend their money. The people who visit our coastal region come primarily for the beaches. They also like to shop and see historic sights. And yes, they like to sportfish, but twice as many of them enjoy “fine dining.” On Ocracoke, fine dining means fresh, local seafood from our local fishermen.

A recent Facebook post from the Café Atlantic referred to HB983. “Serving speckled trout and drum tonight. Better eat some while you can. If our state legislature has its way, we won't be able to serve these fish to our customers.” A question for Zuckerberg: why no option to 'like' and also 'dislike' at the same time?

Jason’s Restaurant buys all their fish from local watermen, and drum is a popular menu item.

“They’re one of our favorite fish,” said co-owner Jimmy Bowen. “We use it as our fish of the day, in sandwiches, and in John Ivey’s fish cakes. It’s good, light, flaky – everyone knows and loves it.”

Vince O’Neal is a commercial fisherman and owns the Pony Island Restaurant, where drum is often on the menu. He says that the problem with the gamefish bill is that it doesn’t address the real problems hurting the resource. 

“They’ve tried these bills before and it never helps the fisheries,” he said. “Loss of wetlands, due to development, is the problem.”

That part of the equation gets overlooked, he said, “because there’s big money in development.”

David Hilton agrees. 

“The fish have got to have a place to breathe,” he said. “We’ve got to stop the environmental degradation.”

Development is a big issue, he said, but even the wilderness that is left is at risk. “Pollution is destroying the wetlands,” he said. 

“Climate events, hurricanes, cold-stunned fish, farm run-off, waste water – that’s what affects the fish population,” Hardy said. 

So… if HB983 is damaging to commercial fishermen and coastal communities, takes food right off your plate, and won’t do anything to help the wee fishies, then how did this terrific piece of legislation get to the NC House of Representatives?

That brings us back to the CCA.

According to David, the CCA has destroyed the commercial fin fish harvest in Texas and managed to pass a net ban in Florida. North Carolina, he said, is the last state with any gill-net inshore fishing.

“The CCA has budgets, lawyers, and paid consultants,” David said. “The recreational fishermen have big lobbying groups, but we’re just guys missing work to go meetings and go to Raleigh. We’re fruit from a low branch – politically we’re weakest.” 

Commercial fisheries are “heavily managed to maintain a sustainable harvest,” David said.

Everything a commercial fishermen brings to the dock is counted and weighed. A commercial license requires a fisherman or woman to sell only to a licensed dealer, who turns in reports about every fish.

Recreational fishing only requires occasional reporting. Gamefish statistics are mostly gathered through surveys, by mail or phone. North Carolina’s recreational surveys are considered some of the most accurate in the country.

“What the they're landing is just estimates,” David said. “Commercial watermen support conservation efforts. We don’t want to destroy the resource we depend upon.”

The CCA claims that these three species are just a small percentage of the commercial catch.

But David explains that it’s a matter of how you group the fish.

“The numbers they use add shrimp and crab to the total catch,” he said. “That distorts the value of these fish to inshore fishermen here on Ocracoke, up in Hatteras, down in Cedar Island. These fish are a large percentage of fin fish catches.” 

So lumping shellfish and fin fish together is one way the CCA distorts the importance of these species to local net fishermen.

David says the way the CCA represents the economic impact of sportfishing is also misleading.

“To come up with the revenue recreational fishing brings, they add all the extras to the slate – hotel rooms, gas, tackle shop sales. For the commercial value, they only count the price of the fish at the dock. But we have economic multipliers that are getting overlooked. We spend money on motors, tackle, commercial fishing supplies, nets, taxes,” David said. “These are small communities and we are interdependent on each other. We spend our money locally. These are real jobs, right now, and the income is being recycled back into the community even in the off-season when the tourists aren’t here.”

Hardy says that the CCA has put arbitrary prices on these fish which are “unfounded.”

“In other states where they’ve gotten gamefish status, it hasn’t proven to bring in more money and there’s not more fish,” he said. 

Steve Ammons, director of NC’s chapter of CCA, thinks gamefish status will in fact bring more tourist dollars to the state.

He says getting this bill introduced has been a long process.

“We’ve put 4 or 5 years into this,” he said. “When we started a long time ago, we were just asking for red drum and we got denied. Then we asked for the other two fish, too.”

Last year’s attempt failed, so this year they tried again by including the gamefish designation with other funding in the same bill. 

“We took ocean striped bass off to make a compromise, and we added funding for dredging and funding for the flounder fishery as a compromise, too,” Steve said.  “What has escaped everyone is that the CCA has made compromises to make it a fair deal for everyone. This is not a gamefish bill only.”

Besides, he added, “these fish are less than than 1% of NC commercial fishermen’s total income, and we’ve got the facts to prove this and the figures on commercial landings in 2011.”

Why then, if it’s not a major, targeted catch for most fishermen, does it matter if they catch them, too? Why bother to make them gamefish?

“Because it will take the price tag off of these three fish,” he explained. “And they will explode in population. There would be so many more of them, and more people would seek these fish and come to North Carolina, bringing tourism to the state. These fish are worth more as hook-and-line fish than they are as a commercial fishery.” 

Ammons believes that the population of, say, red drum would increase if only the commercial guys would leave them alone, while at the same time he says that red drum is such a small part of the commercial catch that it shouldn’t matter to the fishermen to lose them.

His logic was lost on me, though Ammons had many more facts and figures to back up his claims.

“Recreational fishermen caught 174 thousand pounds of these fish in 2011; commercial fishermen caught 431 thousand pounds,” he said. He understands that the commercial guys will still catch some of these fish in their nets. They just won’t be able to keep them.

“There will be some discards at first,” Ammons said. “But they’re going to move their nets. They’re not going to keep setting nets where they’ll catch drum.”

According to Ammons, the argument that this is putting commercial fishermen out of business is wrong. 

“Over here in Raleigh, you can’t find red drum in seafood markets, you can’t find it in this state. It’s hard to find them on a restaurant menu away from the coast. Why? Because they’re all being sold out of state. It doesn’t benefit North Carolina. The vast majority of striped bass being caught is going to New York. When red drum became a game fish in Lousiana, the restaurant owners didn’t mind because they said we’ll just buy fish from North Carolina,” Ammons said. "Striped bass and red drum can be farm-raised. That's what the commercial fishermen should do. And the bill would allow for mitigation payments to the fishermen to make up for their lost income.”

What about lost income to restaurants, and to tourism? I asked. I told Ammons that I am very fond of eating red drum. I don’t fish, but I do order drum in restaurants and buy it at the fish house. I don’t want to give that up. Ammons said that makes me "selfish." Who knew?

“You’re only concerned about Ocracoke,” Ammons said. “But we look past one community to the whole state. Our legislators in Raleigh have to think about what’s best for the state of North Carolina.” 

Recreational fisherman have a 1-fish bag limit for red drum. If they catch another they have to release it. Ammons questions the fairness there.

“If I go out there, and I buy gas and stay in a hotel, and go to the tackle shop and go to a convenience store and go out in my boat, I can only take one fish, but these commercial guys can bring in a hundred pounds of drum,” he said. “Is that fair? I’m asking you, is that fair?” 

When I lost all pretense of neutrality, telling him that yes, actually, I did think it was fair because the commercial guys were feeding more than just their own faces with those 100 pounds, he told me again that I was thinking just of myself and Ocracoke, and not the whole state. 

I wondered if he was thinking about the whole state, or just a few wealthy recreational fishermen. In 2012, there were 839,478 recreational fishing licenses sold in North Carolina. CCA has about 4000 members.

“Of course we want to get more,” Ammons told me. “Do we represent every recreational angler? No, we probably don’t, not everyone.”

Hyde County has 1720 recreational licenses, Ammons told me. “Here in Wake county we have 41,000. Is it fair for the people in Hyde County to make all the decisions about the fish?” 

I pointed out to him that 1720 is a big chunk of Hyde County’s population, close to a third of the people who live here. Wake County has nearly a million people – you do the math. 

But we digress. Ammons and I decided to cool down and talk some more about the specifics of the bill. Commercial fishermen feel the other parts of the bill (about dredging, and flounder) were added to disguise the gamefish section. But it’s not fooling anyone on the coast. Still, Ammons believes the CCA is being generous with HB983.

“The state of North Carolina pays more in observer funds than the flounder fishery is worth,” he said. “The state’s running out of money for observer funds. This bill makes it so that the fees from recreational fishing licenses will go to pay for the flounder fishery observer funds. Without that funding, the flounder fishery could be shut down. Ask your commercial guys if that would hurt them, to lose their flounder fishery? Ask them about that.”

When I asked one of my commercial guys what he thought of the flounder comments, he said something I can’t publish, even in the Current. The gist of it: Ammons is in the lower 1% of the testing curve.

I decided one more time to try to understand Ammons’ point of view. Okay, I said. You say that the bill isn’t just about gamefish designation and that it includes some provisions that would be beneficial to our watermen. Why couldn’t the bill just drop the gamefish part and include funding for the dredging and flounder fishery?

“Why would we want to do that?” Ammons asked. “The purpose is to get gamefish."

He closed by saying he hoped I would be fair to both sides in the arguments. I said I hoped he would feel accurately quoted.

Because the Ocracoke Current has never pretended to be unbiased on this issue, I will let a local waterman get the final word on HB983.

“All three of these fish currently have strict management plans in place to maintain sustainable harvest by both commercial and recreational fishermen. The fish management decisions should be left to the DMF and ‘due process,’” Hardy read to me from his statement for the public hearing. 

“This bill is biologically unnecessary,” he added. “And it’s legally wrong and morally wrong. You can quote me on that.”


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