The North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission has taken a giant step back from an earlier decision in favor of gill-net commercial fishermen. At its meeting in late March, commissioners proposed new measures that would seem to be aimed at answering a suit filed over gill nets and sea turtles.

The Commission last week voted unanimously to repeal measures it passed at its Feb. 18 meeting in New Bern, and immediately adopted proposals to address concerns brought out in a suit filed on behalf of the Karen Beasley Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Topsail to remove all gill nets from inshore waters in North Carolina.

The new regulations become effective May 15.

"I believe we've put together a good, solid alternative," Division of Marine Fisheries Director Louis Daniel said. "We're still tweaking it a little to get it just right, but we have based these changes on suggestions from NOAA Fisheries, our fishermen, information gathered from scientific research projects in the Sea Grant (Fisheries Research Grant) Program and information from Jean Beasley and the folks at the turtle hospital, and other turtle experts. 

Daniel said there are two main issues when it comes to minimizing the danger of gill nets to turtles: the fact that turtles are more active during the day and the use of low-profile nets.

"We've addressed these premises in these changes and, with these changes, I don't believe we'll see near the number of interactions we have seen in the past," Daniel said. "Another plus is we'll avoid some user-conflict situations. That part wasn't a part of what we were trying to do to reduce turtle interactions, but if it comes as a collateral benefit, we'll take it, too."

The Feb. 18 measures that were repealed would have allowed commercial fishermen to use large-mesh gill nets four days per week from May 15 through Dec. 15 instead of prohibiting all gill nets during that time period.

The new regulations will limit use of large-mesh gill nets to between 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Monday through Friday mornings. They also will limit fishermen to "low-profile" gill nets with a net height of no more than 15 meshes, with all cork and other buoys removed except as required for identification of ownership, set in 100-yard lengths with at least a 25-yard break between individual lengths and a total length of 2,000 yards per commercial operation regardless of the number of licensed fishermen on board.

Daniel said this was only done with large-mesh nets because there are no issues with sea turtle interactions and small-mesh nets.

"We're not exactly set with the soak times," Daniel said. "There will be some tweaking to get it just right. Jean Beasley and the folks at the turtle hospital told us that sea turtles are pretty much dormant at night except to go to the ocean beach to lay their eggs, so we will work a sliding scale, much like with hunting times, to set a time relative to sunrise and sunset at each time of the year.  We will allow just enough daylight for fishermen to travel to and from their nets when it is light, but the nets must be completely removed from the water during the daytime.

Daniel cited two of the Sea Grant studies that showed gill-net interactions with turtles to be reduced significantly at night.

"Another plus that comes with the large-mesh nets being out of the water during the daytime is the large-mesh nets will not be there when hook-and-line fishermen are fishing during the day," he said, explaining that this should also help reduce the flounder catch as the amount of time the nets could be fishing would be reduced about 80 per cent.

Daniel said commissioners went to great lengths to incorporate turtle experts' concerns.

"The people at the turtle hospital told us the turtles were attracted by the floats on the nets, so we are removing them," Daniel said.  "By reducing the maximum depth of the net meshes to 15, we are also reducing the maximum height it could cover in the water column. With the net this close to the bottom, everything except flounder will naturally swim over it. This net profile has been tested in some of the studies, and in the Newport River it also reduced the by-catch in the nets."

Commercial fishermen suggested the 100-yard maximum shot size; their reasoning was that if a turtle became entangled with a shorter, lighter net, it could carry it to the surface to breathe and stay alive long enough to be found and rescued.

"Let me point out that this is not some condition to make the suit initiated by the turtle hospital go away," Daniel said. "We have taken their advice into consideration and used it, and we certainly hope they see we are trying to prevent turtle interactions while keeping our fishermen working, but there is no condition or prearrangement with this."