North Carolina needs a game-fish-status bill to protect red drum, spotted seatrout and striped bass from commercial netting for many reasons, but among the most-important reasons for passage of House Bill 353 is that it would be a boon to the state's economy, supporters say.

"The main reason to support the bill is that it would create jobs," said Ty Conti, publisher of North Carolina Sportsman Magazine and a CCA-NC vice-president. "We feel and we've heard state senators and representatives say this is the biggest jobs bill that will come before the Senate and House this year.

"No other bill would produce this many jobs in a state where it's now official policy to reduce the number of (public-school) teachers."

The state's three major saltwater conservation groups – Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, Coastal Fishing Reform Group, and the North Carolina Camo Coalition/North Carolina Wildlife Federation – support HB 353.

North Carolina Sportsman also supports the protection of redfish, trout and stripers from commercial harvest.

Commercial fishing interests, including the North Carolina Fisheries Association, a lobbying group representing netters, oppose game-fish status for these fish.

Conti pointed to North Carolina's boat-manufacturing industry as proof of the need to boost tourism and fishing-related jobs lost in the current depressed economy.

"We've seen a lot of jobs lost," he said. "North Carolina once had 200 boat manufacturers."

Today there are approximately 70 boat-builders left in the state.

Conti also said that, without fish to catch, the billion-dollar tourism industry in North Carolina also suffers.

"Right now a guy who wants to drive to the coast to catch, for instance, speckled trout, may catch 30 trout in one day, only a third of them legal size, but then he has to throw even those fish back because of the cold-stun kills and overfishing of specks that has occurred the last few years," he said. "The fishery is depleted now, and we need to protect them or where's the incentive to drive to the coast and spend money on gasoline, hotels or motels, food, tackle, piers, guide fees, fishing licenses, boats, etc.?

"If there's few fish or you can't keep the fish you catch, what's the reason to come to the coast?"

Conti called game-fish status for red drum a "no-brainer" because reds are the state fish and can't be targeted by netters.

"We also need to protect red drum from illegal catches," he said. "We've seen netters come up (in boats) and set nets to encircle a whole school of reds. They obviously weren't targeting flounder or specks or anything else."

Conti pointed out that fishing exploded in Louisiana after game-fish status was given to red drum in 1988 and speckled trout were protected in 1995, with red drum and speck numbers rebounding from the brink of destruction.

"In Louisiana today their fishery probably is the strongest on the Gulf Coast, very comparable to Texas, which did the same thing (removed gill nets) a few years before Louisiana," Conti said.

Many former commercial fishermen turned to guiding in Louisiana, he said.

"It's a very good option," Conti said. "They know where and how to catch fish; it's not as labor intensive as commercial fishing, and the hours are much better. Even then, this (proposed reduction in speck, drum and striper catches) shouldn't put (commercial fishing) out of business because they catch so few, 2 percent of their total catch, of these fish. It may displace a few who mainly rely on catching these fish, but commercial fishermen always have been resilient.

"We're not trying to put commercial fishermen out of business, and this bill won't do it."

Dick Hamilton, director of the North Carolina Camo Coalition, a division of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, said mismanagement of coastal fisheries is the root cause of HB 353.

"The North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission has done a lousy job managing these fish," Hamilton said. "This commission is dominated by commercial fishing members who rarely vote for the resource."

The MFC's nine-member board is appointed by the governor. Three members are to be commercial fishermen, including a licensed dealer, processor and distributor. Three members are required to be recreational fishermen, one involved in the sport-fishing industry. One is required to be a fisheries scientist and two hold at-large seats. This make-up promotes a 5-4 voting majority for commercial interests.

Proponents of the game-fish status bill note that Dr. Louis Daniel, director of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, testified last year in the House Aquaculture and Marine Resources Committee he couldn't support a game-fish status bill for reds and specks.

Commercial netters wouldn't be shut out totally by HB 353: The bill has a buyback clause that would use $1 million from the MFC's saltwater license trust fund to pay netters over a period of three years for income they lost from not being able to net these fish.

"The slaughter of all those striped bass last winter by the mega-trawlers out of Wanchese caught (the legislature's) attention," said Rep. Dan Ingle (R-Alamance), an H 353 sponsor. "That was incredible and never should have happened.

"We started looking at how the Division of Marine Fisheries allowed fishing for (ocean) stripers and decided some changes needed to be made."

Ingle said he was aware of the argument made by the Marine Fisheries Commission and Daniel that the game-fish status bill would violate the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997.

"But the legislature created the (FRA), and we can change its provisions," Ingle said. "The Division of Marine Fisheries also now apparently doesn't want to follow the Spotted Sea Trout portion of the act because it may mean stopping netting of specks.

"(DMF) has asked trout to be exempted from the FRA, so apparently they want to follow it when it suits them and not follow it when it doesn't."

In 2008, according to DMF statistics, North Carolina had 803,308 individuals eligible to fish under a Coastal Recreational Fishing License. They spent an estimated at $943,929,472 during 7,093,359 fishing trips (Crosson, DMF, July 2010). The economic effect of that spending totaled $1.6 billion. Those figures are hundreds of times more than the total number of commercial fishermen and their reported income from the sale of North Carolina saltwater fish.