A long battle to restrict the harvest of menhaden from one southeastern N.C. county's offshore waters ended during late July when the N.C. legislature passed a bill to keep factory boats away from the Brunswick County coast.

House Bill 1017 is on its way to be signed by Gov. Mike Easley. The bill prohibits the taking of Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus or "pogies" as they're called by recreational coastal anglers) with purse-seine nets within 3 miles of the Brunswick shoreline from May 1-Oct. 31 each year, the height of tourist and angling seasons.

Biologists consider menhaden the prime ocean baitfish. They provide food for many species of saltwater gamefishes, including fish caught by tourists and other anglers. The Brunswick coast, particularly Southport, is home to several major king mackerel and redfish tournaments that boost the local economy by millions of dollars. And menhaden are a favorite food of king mackerel.

Rep. Bonner Stiller (R-Brunswick) led the fight to keep factory boats out of his county's waters.

A similar bill he proposed 3 years ago was shot down in the House Seafood and Aquaculture Committee when it was opposed by Jule Wheatley of Beaufort Fisheries and lobbyists for Omega Protein, the East Coast's major "reduction fishing" business, with a factory based at Reedville, Va.

Since that time, Wheatley has closed his menhaden business and converted his factory site into condominiums. Omega Protein remains in business. In the interim, Stiller, among others, worried Omega would turn to unprotected N.C. waters because of restrictions placed on its harvest of millions of pounds of menhaden at Chesapeake Bay and off the coastlines of several northeastern states.

Stiller said an abundance of menhaden attracts tourists who come to Brunswick County for recreational fishing.

"(Fishing) is part of our tourism engine and economy that drives eastern North Carolina," the legislator said. "It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to allow menhaden boats from Virginia to come into the waters of North Carolina and remove a resource that belongs to all 8 million citizens of the state. They don't leave a dollar bill in North Carolina."

Rep. Stiller received legislative support from Rep. Dewey Hill, D-Columbus, and Sen. R.C. Soles, D-Columbus.

Rube McMullan, owner of Ocean Isle Fishing Center and a supporter of the bill, said he thinks the recreational fishing industry will greatly improve because of the new legislation.

McMullan, it has been noted, mounted e-mail, letter-writing and phone-call campaigns to support Stiller's proposal, starting 3 years ago during the unsuccessful bid. McMullan said the bill was ticketed for oblivion this year in a Senate sub-committee, but Sen. Soles kept it moving toward fruition.

"Recreational fishermen are absolutely ecstatic," McMullan said. "Menhaden is a food source for everything that swims. We thought 3 years ago the legislature wouldn't change its mind, but enough people contacted representatives that they did. Sen. Soles was very helpful and helped convince (Senate leader) Marc Basnight (D-Dare) this was a bill that needed to pass the Senate."

The passage of Stiller's bill is thought to be the first time in N.C. legislative history the General Assembly voted to curtail any business from utilizing public saltwater resources for profit.

The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission opposed the legislation because, one of its officers said, it didn't like the precedent of the N.C. legislature micro-managing coastal fisheries.