In the wake of two large striped bass kills caused by trawl boats in January and early February, the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission nonetheless voted 6-2 on Feb. 11 to allow trawl fishing for stripers.

The Commission also decided to re-open spotted seatrout fishing for commercial fishermen only, while instituting a 50-pound trip limit for gill netters. But it will keep recreational fishing closed until June 15. Dr. Louis Daniel, the executive director of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, had closed the season by proclamation Jan. 14 after large cold-stun kills that littered shallow-water creeks with floating trout. This proclamation takes effect on Thursday, Feb. 17.

Approximately 30 individuals spoke at the Commission's meeting at Pine Knoll Shores Feb. 10-11, with the majority being recreational anglers or environmentalists. They supported closing the trawl season for striped bass. The Commission voted to re-open the trawling season until the final 60,000 pounds of the season's trawling quota was reached. Trawling will be legal as soon as the NCDMF issues an official proclamation detailing the changes.

Daniel supported the decision, basically saying he didn't believe reports from recreational fishermen of massive striper kills, with dead fish numbering in the thousands floating off the beaches of northern Dare County. Even with dozens of photographs on the internet showing hundreds of dead, floating stripers discarded by trawlers, plus eyewitness accounts, Daniel said he believed marine patrol officers who counted only about 250 dead fish in two separate instances.

Daniel, however, apparently had no trouble believing the captain of a trawler.

"We know there was one boat whose captain said they had to release 3,000 to 4,000 fish and left 250 floating," he said, referring to a Jan. 19 incident. "That's the only incident corroborated. These 'thousands of fish,' I'm just not seeing. We've tried our best to address the issue."

Daniel didn't address another massive trawl net kill of stripers that occurred near Pea Island after he reopened the season with new regulations Feb. 3-4.

The striped bass trawl fishery was closed on Feb. 4 by proclamation. But the Commission decided to reopen the fishery for one day in order to allow trawlers to catch the remaining 60,000 pounds in the quota, as well as to continue to allow the fishermen to transfer bass from boat to boat on the water. The decision passed 7-2, with commissioners Mac Currin and Anna Beckwith opposed.

The MFC also voted to keep a newly-instituted-by-proclamation 2,000-pound trip limit for striper trawls.

The Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, Coastal Fisheries Reform Group, Stripers Forever, and Recreational Fishing Alliance each had representatives at the meeting and officials from each group testified the Commission should not reopen the trawl season.

"I ask the MFC to seek an end to trawling for striped bass," said Stephen Ammons, president of CCA-NC, a non-profit recreational fishing organization with branches in many southeastern states. "The discards seen resulted from trawling; this is unacceptable. CCA is asking the MFC to establish a commercial hook-and-line striped bass fishery. This would have a strict trip limit and regulations. The fish kills must stop."

Tim Barefoot of Wilmington, co-chairman of the North Carolina chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a grass-roots political action organization representing the recreational fishing industry, disputed Daniel's claims of not enough evidence.

"It's all over the internet and the chat rooms," he said. "North Carolina is a state without regulations. (Striped bass) should be a hook-and-line fishery only. I've released many fish; none of them have died from proper release from hook-and-line. If (the MFC) chooses to do nothing, expect to hear the word 'gamefish' next time."

Sean McKeon, president of the N.C. Fisheries Association, which acts as a spokesman for the state's commercial fishing industry, was one of the few speakers who supported keeping open the trawl season. His reason? He blamed outside agitation for the uproar following the two well-documented striper kills near Oregon Inlet.

"I'm afraid North Carolina is succumbing to the same pressure as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission," he said. "I'm worried if this continues, you'll change the rules anytime some out-of-state interest complains about what we do. There's no scientific information this fishery is harmful."

As far as the re-opening of commercial fishing for speckled trout, several recreational anglers asked the Commission to keep the season closed to everyone until June 15. NCDMF biologists recommended the same measures, in order to give the speckled trout that survived brutal cold in December and early January time to spawn at least once before being harvested.

The Commission instead voted to re-open the season for commercial fishermen, although limiting them to a 50-pound trip limit – a measure biologists had originally discussed as part of the Speckled Trout Fishery Management Plan – while keeping the recreational season closed for four more months.