MOREHEAD CITY — The state Marine Fisheries Commission voted Wednesday to overrule the director of the Division of Marine Fisheries and ban gill nets upstream of the ferry crossing points in the Neuse and Pamlico rivers.
The commission, during what it called an emergency meeting in Kinston that was announced Monday, approved a motion directing Division of Marine Fisheries Director Steve Murphey to implement a year-round closure upstream of the Bayview-Aurora Ferry in the Pamlico River and upstream of the Minnesott Beach-Cherry Branch Ferry in the Neuse River.
The proclamation to take effect Monday and the closure were expected to continue for about two years or until an amendment to the state’s Estuarine Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan is adopted. The provision, called Amendment 2, could continue the closure or recommend other management actions.
Murphey had declined to voluntarily implement a similar motion passed at the commission’s February meeting that requested he restrict the use of gill nets that interact with striped bass upstream of the ferry crossings in the rivers and require attendance of gill nets that interact with striped bass upstream of the tie-down lines in the Central Southern Management Area.
The February motion was made following the adoption of Supplement A to Amendment 1 to the N. C. Estuarine Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan, which provided for a year-round season closure for striped bass in inland waters in the Central Southern Management Area, or from just south of Oregon Inlet to the South Carolina state line.
In a March 4 letter to the commission, Murphey wrote that he carefully considered the issue but concluded that scientific data did not support the ban. Gill nets are not the primary or even the most significant source of discard mortality in the Central Southern Management Area striped bass fishery, according to Murphey’s letter.
“This letter and Supplement A acknowledge discards in both the recreational and commercial industry, but it also points out that gill net restrictions already in place have resulted in significant reductions in striped bass discards and that recreational discards are increasing in recent years,” Murphey said.
The emergency meeting was called under a statute that authorizes the commission to consider directing the fisheries director to issue a proclamation. Once the commission votes under this provision to direct issuance of a proclamation, the fisheries director has no discretion to choose another management option and is bound by law to follow the commission decision. In these cases, under existing law, the decision of the commission to direct the director to issue a proclamation is final and can only be overruled by the courts.
“I have talked to the secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality, and the secretary has talked to the Governor’s Office, and the secretary does not agree with the approach for this proceeding,” Murphey said in a statement.
DEQ Secretary Michael Regan issued a statement Thursday evening on the commission’s “non-emergency” action, saying he was disappointed and that the commission “used bad judgment in directing the Division of Marine Fisheries Director to take actions that contradict science and the recommendations of the division’s scientists. I certainly hope this is not a precedent we will see again from this Commission.”
Regan lacks discretion to overturn such a directive.
DMF had implemented a year-round striped bass season closure for commercial fishermen in coastal waters managed by the Marine Fisheries Commission and in waters managed cooperatively between the commission and the state Wildlife Resources Commission. But, DMF had delayed implementation of the no-possession measure for the recreational fishery in joint fishing waters “because it is currently inconsistent with Wildlife Resources Commission management measures for those waters,” the division said.
The Marine Fisheries Commission also passed a motion Wednesday asking the Wildlife Resources Commission to adopt a year-round closed season for striped bass for recreational harvest in joint fishing waters.
DMF said research shows that striped bass in the Central Southern Management Area are not a self-sustaining population and that fishermen are mainly catching hatchery-raised fish, but data suggest there have been two recent naturally spawned year classes. The no-possession management measure would offer additional protection for those non-hatchery fish and protect larger females which could increase natural spawning stock biomass.