The legislative research committee that will study how North Carolina saltwater resources will be managed in the future will hold its first of three meetings in January, according to a co-chairman of the joint-legislative committee that will do the study.

Information from a legislative source indicated in October that the committee would announce the dates for a series of four public hearings by Nov. 4. However, no announcement was made by that date.

"We are planning those meetings," Rep. Darrell McCormick (R-Yadkin/Surry/Iredell) said in mid-November. "No one should be worried about that."

He said it is his understanding that three public hearings will be held, not four as previously stated.

"There's no risk we won't have those meetings," said McCormick, who predicted that the first public hearing will be held in January.

He said it's also possible the public hearings could "all occur at Raleigh, or we could hold them at Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh and Morehead City; no sites have been chosen yet."

The Republican-controlled legislature created the committee after a bill that would have prohibited the sale of red drum, spotted seatrout and striped bass was tabled despite having majority support in both chambers of the legislature. The bill's fate was apparently the result of a deal between a handful of Democrats who promised to vote to make the Republican budget veto proof in return for the game-fish bill not being brought up for a vote.

Because the proposal to give specks, reds and stripers game-fish status had such widespread support, the legislative study commission created a saltwater-resources study committee to examine a wide range of coastal fisheries topics, including a revival of the game-fish status bill for reds, specks and stripers.

Other items before the saltwater study committee include a proposed reorganization of the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission, giving the North Carolina Marine Patrol joint enforcement powers that would allow officers to enforce federal as well as state fishing regulations on both state and federal waters. The committee also could take a look at the penalties for violations of state fishing laws.

McCormick admitted the original scope of his committee, co-chaired by Sen. Harry Brown (R-Jones/Onslow), might have been too comprehensive to be properly covered before April arrives, when the committee must make recommendations to the senate and house. That reality has led to a triage situation in which the committee must decide the order of topics to be covered.

"Part of what we are looking at is what do we feel like we can do now and what can be an ongoing process?" McCormick said. "We want to make the right steps in the right direction and be conscientious in what we do."

However, he said a revisit of the game-fish status proposal would "be near the top of our list."

McCormick also said the committee had lots of interest in fairness, meaning "the allocation of (saltwater) resources must be in the best interests of the state as a whole."

He noted the "people at the coast have benefited (from past saltwater-resources management decisions), but modernization will benefit more people as to how we allocate the resources."

McCormick said his committee is interested in "hearing a lot of voices" of people who could benefit from the bounty of saltwater and brackish-water species found along North Carolina's coast.

"We also want to hear what fishing guides, boat dealers, tackle shops, restaurants, hotels and motels have to say," he said.

As an example, McCormick pointed to some inequities in the fee status for marine law violations.

"We're going to look at the structure of fines to reflect the actual impact of the violation," he said. "It doesn't seem exactly equitable to fine a guy who's fishing with his two boys with Zebco 202s, and they get tickets bigger than a guy who took 20,000 pounds of specks.

"For that reason and others, the game-fish status concept is on the front burner, and we're moving forward regarding the question of how we address these problems. Any time you've got a set of rules, you've got to have an objective you're intending the rules to achieve."

McCormick said economic studies showing spotted seatrout, red drum and striped bass accounting for only 2 percent of commercial fishermen's annual payday is the major reason he believes game-fish status is appropriate for these three species.

"I'm just sticking to the reported numbers," he said. "It's time to modernize our fishing rules and realize the economic potential of the state's saltwater resources."

McCormick said he realizes any management changes that challenge the status quo are going to be met with opposition, particularly from the commercial fishing industry.

"I'm not a quitter," he said. "(Opponents) told us we'd never get a (study) committee. Then they said, after we did get the committee, well, it's only a House committee, and we immediately got a Senate committee. We're chipping away at it."

Studies by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries indicate that approximately 1.2 million people fish in North Carolina's coastal waters annually, generating an economic impact approximately 1,000 percent greater than the impact of about 1,500 active commercial fishermen.