The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission turned down the opportunity to open commercial netting of red drum at its meeting last week in Pine Knoll Shores, but it will allow netters to put large-mesh gill nets back in the water on June 1 in areas that haven’t traditionally been home to either reds or endangered sea turtles.

The Commission voted to allow anchored large-mesh gill nets back in the waters of the western Albemarle Sound, Currituck Sound, sections of the Pamlico, Pungo and Neuse Rivers that are exempt from regulations governing incidental take of sea turtles, and the area of the New River upstream from the line where it is closed to shrimp trawling. The nets are primarily set for flounder, and no commercial possession of red drum will be allowed.

Commercial netters caught more than their entire year’s quota in 84 days last fall, and the fishery was closed then until at least Sept. 1. The Commission was bound by regulations at the state and federal level to keep the fishery closed.

“The purpose of this is to let as many fishermen as possible go back to work,” said Joe Shute, who holds a recreational-industry seat on the Commission. “We looked at histories of these areas and examined fish-house reports and tried to open areas that didn’t have a history of catching many red drum.

“We are entering the summer, and the provisions of the sea turtle ITP close so much area that these fishermen are really limited in where they can fish already. We need to let them work as long as they don’t have turtle interactions and don’t have a lot of red drum by-catch, and this was the best solution we could find. It can also change if it needs to between now and when the red drum season reopens in September.” 

However, not all fishermen believe the New River opening is justified.

“I can’t speak for the other bodies of water, but we have a lot of red drum in the New River above the shrimp trawl line,” said Allen Jernigan, a commercial fisherman and guide from Sneads Ferry. “They will go as far up the river as flounder and are regularly caught on the shoals in the river and in the creeks off of it. These aren’t just small red drum either; many of them are slot-size, and some are overslot fish.”  

In another decision, the Commission voted to advise the governor and state legislation to allow the N.C. Marine Patrol to enter into a joint law enforcement agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service, a past hot-button issue.

North Carolina is the only state along the south Atlantic coast that doesn’t have a joint law enforcement agreement with the NFMS. If passed by legislators, it would give the Marine patrol authority to enforce federal fishery regulations, and the Marine Patrol would receive federal funds to support the agreement.

“The joint law enforcement agreement is a good thing all the way around,” Shute said. “It will allow our Marine Patrol Officers to enforce federal regulations, and our regulations mirror them in most cases. There is also federal funding to do this, and the Marine Patrol budget can surely use that. We have been very financially strapped and already can’t run all the patrols and programs we would like to.”

Patricia Smith, public information officer for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, confirmed that entering into the joint law enforcement agreement would provide an additional $600,000 in annual operating funds for Marine Patrol.

In other business, the commission voted to:

* Ask the director to implement a new federal regulation in state waters that would allow state-permitted fishing tournaments to sell king mackerel for charitable causes;

* Send a letter to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission asking it to apply all resources towards completing a red drum stock assessment to be used in review of the N.C. Red Drum Fishery Management Plan in 2015.