The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries has received a long-awaited Incidental Take Permit for sea turtles from the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the agency is studying details of the ITP before reopening large-mesh gill net fishing in different areas of coastal waters, expected to be closed until at least Oct. 1.

NCDMF received the ITP on Sept. 10, giving it the option of opening the commercial fisheries that have been closed, some for several months, but will take time to study the document carefully, especially since several new provisions are included, including turtle interaction numbers for small-mesh gill nets.

“While we are thrilled to have the ITP in hand and know it will allow our flounder gill-net fishermen to go back to work, it isn’t as easy as just letting them go,” said Chris Batsavage, an agency biologist. “We have a limited number of takes – which are any interactions between sea turtles and fishing gear – and we have to use them wisely or the season could be closed again very quickly. There are several areas where a single take could close the area until next September.”

Batsavage said during the ITP application process, NCDMF asked that the fishing year be changed from the traditional calendar year to a Sept. 1-Aug. 31 season, and NMFS agreed. That move assures there will be interactions for the fall gill-net flounder season, which is one of the high catch times of the year. It also has the summer, which is the time of highest interaction with sea turtles, at the end of the year. This should allow fishermen to have the highest flounder catch, with the least number of interactions – and fishing closed when the most turtles are present.

“Now that we have the ITP and have the number of interactions that will be allowed and the new requirements, we can plan,” Batsavage said. “We are examining observer reports, talking with our field staff, key fishermen and fish- house owners and trying to make this work the best we can. It would be foolish to open the season in an area with a lot of turtles and have a bunch of interactions right away and have to close it for the rest of the year. Even if it takes a few days, we need to get it done right.”

The ITP, issued under provisions of the Endangered Species Act, is good for 10 years and will expire Aug. 31, 2023. It specifies the allowable interactions by turtle species for each of six gill-net management areas of the coast.

One of the requirements of the ITP is that special terms of a lawsuit settlement between NCDMF and the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital will apply statewide.  Large-mesh gill nets may only be fished Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. The nets cannot be set until an hour before sunset and must be removed from the water within the first hour after sunrise. 

“This is the result of a lot of hard work by dedicated division staff,” said Dr. Louis Daniel, NCDMF’s director. “The flounder gill net fishery is an important economic factor in Eastern North Carolina, and this permit will allow it to continue on a limited basis while protecting threatened and endangered sea turtles.” 

Daniel echoed Batsavage’s comments that the areas currently closed to large-mesh gill nets would not reopen immediately, but will reopen as soon as NCDMF staff thinks the probability of sea turtle interactions was sufficiently low.  Neither gave a timetable, but both said it would be as soon as possible.

A copy of the ITP and the implementing agreement can be found on the DMF website at www.ncdmf.net under the Hot Topics header.  For more information, contact Chris Batsavage at 252-808-8009 or Chris.Batsavage@ncdenr.gov