As the confirmation process of House Bill 353 heads into its middle stages, both sides are trying to influence public and legislative opinion.

HB 353, introduced March 15 at the North Carolina legislature, would designate spotted seatrout, red drum and striped bass as game fish in coastal waters. That would mean these three species could be landed only by hook and line, and their sale would be prohibited.

The bill, with four primary sponsors and 16 co-sponsors from both the Democrat and Republican parties, would mean these fish couldn't be taken by commercial fishermen, who have caught them in nets and sold them for years.

Recent lawful, permitted actions by commercial trawl netters in the ocean striped bass fishery that wasted thousands of legal-size fish, plus the closure of recreational spotted seatrout fishing while netting was permitted to continue (even after a devastating winter kill of a species listed as depleted by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries) have led to the current situation.

Opponents of HB 353 have claimed game fish status would put many commercial fishermen out of work, be a first step to banning all gill nets and that North Carolinians wouldn't be able to eat fresh seafood, plus the MFC's Marine Patrol would be given Joint Enforcement Authority to enforce federal offshore laws, which would prevent anyone from landing striped bass or red drum.

Upon examination, none of those allegations appear to be true.

The Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina is one of the main proponents of HB 353.

CCA-NC's Executive Director Stephen Ammons said his organization supports HB 353 because of past actions by the Marine Resources Commission, a politically-appointed group of nine members – many whom have direct or indirect ties to the commercial fishing industry – who hail from coastal counties.

"The majority of the MFC has made decisions based on a few commercial entities instead of the resource," Ammons said in an interview with the Jacksonville News. "Our next step to keep the resource safe is to take it to the legislature."

Recent actions by the MFC created the impetus that resulted in HB 353's formation.

During January and February, commercial trawl boats killed thousands of legal-size striped bass in haul seines and dumped excess fish overboard, attempting to cull the 50 heaviest striped bass (a DMF rule). Dozens of recreational anglers aboard striper-fishing boats witnessed this waste, took photos and videos and posted them on Internet fishing sights (including, creating a national firestorm of criticism of North Carolina coastal fishery management.

In response, the executive director of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries scuttled the 50-striper limit and set a 2,000-pound trip limit for trawlers and allowed transfer of over-limit catches to other trawlers. But when the DMF re-opened the season a few days later, trawlers once again killed and dumped thousands of striped bass into the ocean.

Those actions, plus closing the recreational spotted seatrout season until June 15 because of a massive winter kill while allowing commercial netters to continue to net specks, tipped the scales and created the impetus for HB 353.

Since March 15, commercial fishing interests have proclaimed war on HB 353 and its supporters, saying the bill is promoted by "rich" non-coastal boat owners.

A similar bill was proposed in 2009 and commercial fishing interests presented a petition to the legislature containing 8,000 signatures. That bill died in a sub-committee. A similar petition is being drawn up now. It will be countered by a petition started by the Coastal Fisheries Reform Group.

CCA-NC, in response to the striper kills and speckled trout ruling, commissioned a study by the Gentner Consulting Group to determine the actual economic impacts of recreational and commercial fishing of those three coastal species in North Carolina.

The study's facts and figures show recreational fishing for red drum, speckled trout and striped bass supports far more jobs than commercial fishing and sale of these fish.

According to DMF and federal figures, in 2009 N.C. anglers took 154,730 striped bass fishing trips, 476,866 spotted seatrout fishing trips and 414,950 red drum fishing trips for a total of 1.1 million trips across all three species (Table 1). This total effort includes trips where anglers caught and/or targeted these three species. 

The study revealed, with information gleaned from federal angling surveys and DMF statistics, that recreational fishing accounted for $1.6 billion to the North Carolina economy in 2008, including 17,758 jobs and $508,009,760 in income.

At the same time, commercial fishing generated only $1.5 million in sales, $722,700 in income and 258 jobs (Table 2 and Table 3) across the harvesting sector for these three species, representing only 1.2 percent of the activity generated by recreational fishing for these same species.

The DMF reported in 2010 that North Carolina had only 1,114 active commercial fishermen who caught one or more of these species to sell. Of those 1,114 participants, only 87 made more than $2,000 from sale of these fish. That means 70 percent of the state's commercial fishermen won't be affected in any way by HB 353, and a significant number of those who will be affected won't be in a significant way.

Complaints about ending netting for red drum also have little economic support since these fish have been classified as "incidental by-catch" species for years, so there is no directed fishery targeting reds allowed. Netters are allowed only 10 reds per trip accidentally caught, mostly in the southern flounder gill net fishery (southern flounder are classified as depleted).

In 2005, 691 commercial fishermen landed a red drum and only 216 of those made more than $200 from red drum harvest. 

For striped bass, the highest-valued commercial fishery of the three, 614 fishermen landed striped bass in the estuary fishery and only 201 fishermen landed fish in the ocean.  Across both fisheries, only 68 fishermen earned more than $2,000 a year selling striped bass in 2004.

Finally for spotted seatrout, only 921 fishermen landed trout, and only 105 landed more than $1,000 worth of trout in 2008.

To support HB 353, click here to access links to each of the bill's sponsors. Just click on each name to send emails to these legislators.