The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission and N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries were put on notice Oct. 19 that state coastal saltwater netting regulations are out of compliance with federal enviromental laws and face an impending lawsuit.
The ultimate result could be a stunning ban of gill nets in all North Carolina coastal waters.

     However, the 60-day notice of a lawsuit-to-come doesn't involve an attempt to protect saltwater fisheries, but sea turtles.

     The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center of Topsail Island, directed by the late Beasley's mother, Jean Beasley, and represented by the Duke Environmental Duke Environmental Law & Policy Clinic, will file the suit Dec. 18 if the DMF/MFC doesn't remove gill nets from coastal waters.

     Because of incidents over a span of years involving sea turtle deaths and injuries caused by entanglements in gill nets - plus non-reporting of those deaths by netters - the Beasley Center decided to take action.

     "When you tolerate something, you empower it," Jean Beasley said, "and through inaction, you can allow it to grow.(Sea turtles being killed in gill nets) can no longer be tolerated."

     Beasley, 74, said her organization is no Johnny-come-lately to the issue, having begun its campaign to protect sea turtles in 1984.

     "My daughter (Karen) wrote the mission statement back then," Beasley said. "We've always had the same mission."

     Michael Nowlin, a longtime friend of Jean Beasley's, joined the Duke Environmental Law & Policy Clinic two years ago, and a chance meeting of the two, who had worked together earlier, set the wheels in motion for the lawsuit - which is a student project.

     The DMF sets net mesh-sizes, lengths and netting seasons for saltwater fish species in N.C. coastal waters. Some mesh sizes are so small that sea turtles can't escape them. For years, the DMF has permitted incidental catches of endangered sea turtles inside Pamlico Sound, where a large flounder fishery exists.

     The Beasley Turtle Center, which includes a turtle rehabilitation hospital, meanwhile, has been in the business -- it's supported by volunteers and donations -- of rehabilitating injured turtles, some of which were caught in those gill nets.

     The Coastal Fisheries Reform Group of North Carolina, a frequent critic of MFC/DMF policies, supported the Beasley Center's action to halt the killing and injuring of sea turtles by gill nets.

     "The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center of Topsail Beach has given the National Marine Fisheries Service notice that it will pursue legal remedies in federal court against the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission," said Dean Phillips, CFRG's director. "The notice is a prerequisite to any formal legal proceedings based upon the Endangered Species Act and pertains to the unlawful take of endangered and threatened sea turtles along the entire N.C. coast. 

     "The notice requests that all gill nets be removed from all North Carolina coastal waters. If no remedy is found within 60 days, then the Beasley Center can file formal legal proceedings."

     If a lawsuit is filed in Fourth Circuit Federal Court, it likely will be heard by Judge Terrence Boyle, who forced a controversial beach-driving consent decree upon Cape Hatteras National Seashore residents during April 2008 that rescinded an Interim Plan used by the National Park Service. The decree severely restricted beach driving by anglers because of the presence of a handful of threatened shorebirds, not hundreds of rare sea turtles.

     CFRG repeatedly had asked the DMF and MFC to remedy the problem of "incidental" catches of red drum and other species (turtles, waterfowl) in gill nets set mainly to catch flounder and striped mullet nets - to little avail.

   Dr. Louis Daniel, director of the DMF, didn't take phone calls when contacted Oct. 22 regarding the potential federal lawsuit by the Beasley Center and he directed questions to spokesperson Patricia Smith, who directed questions to Amanda Little of the N.C. Attorney General's office.

     Little, who has an office in the DMF Headquarters Building at Morehead City, said, "We have received the paperwork but cannot comment at this time because this (matter) involves a potential lawsuit." 

     The Beasley Center lawsuit's major points include:

     (a) the DMF and MFC are the governmental bodies that issue fishing licenses to those who use nets and is ultimately responsible for making sure netters follow state and federal regulations;

     (b) all sea turtles are either endanged or on the protected-species list and therefore legally can't be "taken" (killed, harmed or harassed) by any means. Taking sea turtles is a violation of federal law;

     (c) DMF applied for an ICP (Incidental Take Permit) designation with the National Marine Fisheries Service for netters at certain areas inside Pamlico Sound where flounder gill nets traditionally are used. However, DMF allows gill nets to be used at other coastal waters without issuing ICPs, in violation of the Endangered Species Act;

     (d) During 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, gill netters were required to report catches of sea turtles in their nets. However, they reported zero (0) sea turtles caught, according to DMF reports. Neutral observers saw 156 total "interactions" (catches) of sea turtles in Pamlico Sound flounder gill nets just in 2008.