Commercial fishermen in the Albemarle and Currituck sounds who fish large-mesh gill nets have had regulations tightened because of problems the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries has had complying with federal regulations regarding protection of sea turtles.

As of Friday, July 25, affected fishermen will be subject to the same regulations as fishermen in other parts of the state, including a reduced amount of time the nets can be fished, as the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries attempts to come into compliance with the Sea Turtle Incidental Take Permit (TIP).

The changes were forced by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which notified the NCDMF that it had not provided the minimum of 7-percent observer coverage on gill-net trips during the spring fishing season. The NMFS warned that failure to comply could result in enforcement actions that might go as far as closing all North Carolina water to large-mesh gill nets.

An NCDMF press release said that the lack of designated fishing times, insufficient staff resources, funding issues, weather conditions and stiff resistance from fishermen have made it difficult for agency staff to observe the number of fishing trips necessary to satisfy the conditions of the Sea Turtle Incidental Take Permit.

Dr. Louis Daniel, the agency’s director, said much of the problem stems from commercial fishermen not wanting to allow observers to accompany them when they check their gill nets.

“Unfortunately,” Daniel said, “observers have noticed fishermen purposely avoiding fishing their nets when division staff is around and, in some cases, fishermen have pointedly refused to take observers on board.”

The new regulations, which mirror those already in effect for most of the rest of the state and will go into effect in Croatan and Albemarle sounds when the large-mesh gill-net season opens are two-fold. First, fishermen will be required to fish their large-mesh gill nets in the first hour after sunrise each day, and they are not allowed to be fished until one hour before sunset each day. Second, the nets must also be tied down so they do not extend more than 48 inches above the bottom. 

“The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) wanted to close these areas,” said Jacob Boyd of the NCDMF. “We met with them and convinced them to let us change the regulations in these areas to what was working in other parts of the state. This was our second chance. If we don’t meet the observer requirements for the summer fishing season, they may pull the ITP and close the whole state. The requirement for the ITP is a minimum of 7-percent observer coverage by trip, with a goal of 10- percent observer coverage. 

“These sounds had previously been exceptions from (some of the) requirements of the ITP that are in place for most of the rest of the state,” Boyd said. “Fishermen were only required to check their nets by noon, and several times they were seen waiting until the observers left the area. Those trips couldn’t be counted as observed, and we couldn’t meet the number required to comply with the ITP. These changes will make things more efficient and allow us to conserve limited funding.

“Some of the large-mesh gill-net fishermen are seeing these regulation changes as punitive, but they aren’t,” Boyd said. “There are new regulations in place with the Sea Turtle ITP and with the sturgeon ITP. We are working diligently to keep the waters open for gill-net fishermen. However, they will have to work within these regulations or NMFS will pull the ITP and there is nothing we can do.”

Daniel said the agency is working on a gill-net permit, with special provisions to meet the requirements of the Sea Turtle ITP, and he believes the issue will be resolved, but he said it is critical that fishermen comply with the observer requirements to allow the large mesh gill net fishery to remain open.