The Coastal Fisheries Reform Group calls a proposal by the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission to change the way commercial fishermen trawl for shrimp in North Carolina waters “weak” and said it opposes the proposal, which will be reviewed in mid-February.

The Commission will hold a meeting to discuss an amendment to the Shrimp Fishery Management Plan on Feb. 14 in at the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries’ headquarters in Morehead City. The CRFG, which has supported proposals to keep large trawls out of North Carolina’s sounds, believes the Shrimp FMP falls “woefully short” of an acceptable path to reduce finfish by-catch.

The Commission’s proposal includes includes industry testing of by-catch reduction devices, updating of testing protocols by the state by-catch reduction-device certification program and requires additional by-catch reduction devices in all shrimp-trawl nets.

A letter from the CFRG to the Commission said the proposals “are almost meaningless and will do little if anything to reduce finfish by-catch in shrimp trawling operations,” noting that the recommendations contain no gear-restriction options, no time or area closures and no targets for by-catch reduction. The group said the amendment also needs an aggressive data collection/analysis program to monitor the success of management actions during the next five years.

The amendment was prompted after two studies by biologist Kevin Brown of NCDMF estimated that 500 million juvenile finfish are killed annually in sounds and inlets by shrimp-trawl nets. Supporters of marine conservation were hopeful that the Commission would accept Brown’s studies and devise strategies to stop the massive by-catch, but that doesn't appear to be happening.

CFRG pointed out the federal standard for reducing by-catch, included in the Commission’s draft amendment, promotes reducing by-catch, and that the Commission, as early as 1991, had “adopted a policy directing the DMF to establish the goal of reducing by-catch losses to the absolute minimum and to consciously incorporate that goal into all of its, management considerations.”

The CFRG urged the Commission to amend the Shrimp FMP to include these provisions:

* Limit all trawl nets in inshore coastal waters (especially Pamlico Sound) to a maximum headrope size of 110 feet and only allow two nets per boat.

* Limit tow times to 60 minutes to allow some by-catch to be released alive and increase the chance of sparing endangered turtles trapped in the nets.

* Delay shrimp season until the shrimp size has reached the level of having 36 to 41 (or less) shrimp per pound. This would postpone the harvest of shrimp and allow juvenile finfish to grow larger and have more of a chance of escaping shrimp trawls. These fish would also have more time to move out of their nursery areas where trawlers now work.

* Establish exclusion zones around both sides of inlets where trawlers with headropes exceeding 110 feet wouldn’t be allowed. 

“Now is the time to get serious about the finfish decimation caused by the current activities of shrimp trawlers in the inshore waters of North Carolina,” CFRG wrote. “Destruction of fisheries resources of this magnitude cannot be tolerated any longer.”

CFRG also asked the Commission to establish “realistic goals, implement some meaningful management measures, set a timetable for implementation, evaluate improvements in terms of by-catch reduction, and make subsequent changes as dictated by results.”