For the first time, a North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission decision regarding a fisheries resource has been voted out of compliance with federal regulations by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and the matter could ultimately result in a statewide closure for weakfish.

The ASFMC ruled at its May 4 meeting that the state Commission's March 20 decision not to abide by the federal mandate to reduce the harvest of weakfish (a.k.a. gray trout) has put North Carolina out of compliance.

The Marine Fisheries Commission will meet tomorrow (May 11) through Thursday (May 13) in Raleigh, and the weakfish issue is on the agenda.

North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries Director Louis Daniel is expected to advise the Marine Fisheries Commission to come into compliance with the ASFMC or risk a total shutdown of the weakfish fishery.

Weakfish numbers have been declining for years in Atlantic coast states, particularly in North Carolina which continues to lead all states with 30 percent of the total catch of gray trout. Even the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries lists gray trout as depleted – and commercial and recreational landngs currently are at the lowest level on record, even though DMF statistics show overfishing isn't occurring.

The ASMFC ruling was in response to those statistics.
The disagreement over management cropped up when the state Commission wanted commercial fishermen to be allowed to keep more than 100 pounds of "bycatch" (weakfish caught accidentally in nets set to capture other species).

The ASMFC's mandate to states is to limit recreational fishermen to one weakfish per day – the daily creel limit is currently six - and 100 pounds of bycatch per commercial fishing trip. The commercial mandate is down from 150 pounds for gill nets, fly nets, shrimp and crab trawls. No trip limit exists for seines.
The argument against the ASFMC's mandate is that commercial fishermen in North Carolina would be forced to discard more than a million pounds of bycatch weakfish. The Marine Fisheries Commission voted 4-2 at its March 2010 meeting in Kitty Hawk not to adopt ASFMC mandates.

The ASFMC's response on May 4 will go to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce within 30 days. If the secretary rules against the state, the federal government could close the entire weakfish fishery in North Carolina.
Robert Bizzell, chairman of the Marine Fisheries Commission, admitted the vote was a deliberate decision to go out of compliance with ASMFC mandates.
"I didn't like the (MFC) voting to go out of compliance with the ASMFC's mandate to stop the overfishing of weakfish," he is quoted in news reports. "I believe in the integrity of the process, and what we did violates the process. But I … like even less the idea of wasting fish.

"Overfishing is occurring and needs to stop, but I feel that we need to study, in more depth, how to properly end overfishing. Some fishing operations, in particular the long-haul beach seine, can harvest thousands of pounds of weakfish. For the majority of these harvested fish to be discarded dead is bothersome to me."
Representatives of conservation groups scoffed at Bizzell's explanation.

"We have regressed back to the bad old days," Dick Brame, director of the Coastal Conservation Association's Atlantic States Fisheries section, was quoted in a news report as saying. " This is a stock that has for all intents and purposes collapsed from fishing mortality and unknown and increasing natural mortality.

"The (feds) should have closed the fishery, but instead elected to allow a small bycatch fishery. The (Commission's) intent, I believe, is to work the non-compliance process until the last minute, then have (the director) use proclamation authority to put them back in compliance at the last minute. They believe the process will take months, which allows them to fish unhindered in the meantime."
Brame said he believes undue pressure from the commercial fishing industry is the source of the problem.

"The (Commission) is so dominated by commercial interests now that this sort of irresponsible behavior occurs," he said. "Its members should consider how to eliminate any harvest in order to give the stock the best chance of recovery."