The General Assembly's Committee on Marine Fisheries tasked with recommending changes to the management of saltwater fisheries held its first meeting yesterday (Jan. 4), and listened to North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries Director Louis Daniel III and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Executive Director Gordon Myers.

At that meeting, one of the study committee's members made it clear he did not favor protecting redfish, speckled trout and stripers by granting those species gamefish status.

The committee sought information about the two agencies' missions and goals, having already said it was considering merging the two agencies or eliminating the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission.

But the meeting actually was the opening round of an expected four-round heavyweight fight between commercial and recreational fishing interests in North Carolina.

About 100 people filled visitor gallery seats, including Sean McKeon, head of the commercial fishing industry's North Carolina Fisheries Association, along with recreational fishing organizers such as Stephen Ammons and Dale Petty of the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, John Hislip of the Coastal Fishing Reform Group, Greenville outdoors television producer and activist Joe Albea, and Dick Hamilton of the N.C. Camouflage Coalition

After Daniel presented a history of the NCDMF and its mission, Sen. Don East (R-Alleghany/Stokes/Surry/Yadkin) made it clear he's an opponent of any changes in the status quo of saltwater management in North Carolina.

After Daniel showed figures from a graph showing total annual commercial landings from 2007 and then a graph that revealed landings without menhaden, plus a 2009 agency study that indicated relative economic values of annual commercial fishing ($267 million) and recreational fishing ($1.785 billion), East asked a revealing question.

"Does (the graph) show that, since 2007, landings and values of commercial fishing have decreased?" East said.

Daniel had to explain that commercial landings actually had increased "a tic" when the graph was viewed without menhaden poundage.

"You (Daniel) also said the commercial fishing economic impact was $464 million and recreational was $2.5 billion," East said. "How did you come to those numbers?"

Daniel explained again agency statisticians and economists arrived at those figures using "ex-vessel" payments for fish and a multiplier effect (salaries and equipment of people involved in handling, preparing, transporting and selling commercially-caught fish).

East indicated he didn't believe Daniel's recreation statistics "because, what if a guy drives his car to the beach, uses his own rods and reels and baits, sleeps in his car and doesn't spend anything? How can expenditures be so high?"

At that point, co-chairman Darrell McCormick (R-Iredell/Surry/Yadkin), a co-sponsor of the original gamefish bill, couldn't resist noting that East "knows most (anglers) who go to the coast don't sleep in their cars."

McCormick explained that not only do recreational anglers rent rooms, buy gasoline, go out to eat or purchase steaks to cook at their hotel, but that "say a guy in Yadkin County decides to go fishing at the coast. He'll need a truck, maybe stop at East Bend to get groceries, maybe stop in Burlington to get gasoline, maybe he bought the truck in Jonesville. He spends money at all those businesses.

"That's how recreational fishing money adds up."

The next committee meeting – the only one of the four scheduled meetings during which public comment will be allowed – is scheduled for 1 p.m., Feb. 2, at Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building. The committee will listen to comments from industry representatives and interested individuals.

Click here to read more about the fight to preserve the valuable saltwater fisheries.