Rep. Billy Richardson, (D-Cumberland) said all winter that he planned to introduce a bill to place a net ban referendum on the 2016 fall ballot, and last week, he remained true to his word.

HB 1122, ”An Act to Provide for a Referendum to Limit Marine Net Fishing,” passed its first reading on May 11, the day after it was filed, and it was subsequently referred to the Committee on Wildlife Resources. A day later, it wound up referred to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House.

Many legislative observers believe the bill was sent to the Rules, Calendar and Operations Committee to languish in legislative purgatory until the 2016 session ends, just as a similar bill of Richardson’s in 1995. 

Richardson, however, remains optimistic. He stands behind the legislation aimed at adding a referendum on the November ballot to allow the people of North Carolina to vote to remove gill nets and trawls from the state’s inland waters. 

"This legislation and the following referendum are badly needed," Richardson said. "We have been charged with managing the fish in our inland, coastal waters and we have failed. We have failed badly. If the legislature won't act to straighten things out, we need to allow the people the choice of doing it. After all, these waters and the fish are a public resource, and they belong to everyone in the state.

"Some people give this little chance of passing, but I am committed to it," Richardson said. "If it doesn't pass this time, I'll introduce it again at the next session. I'm very serious about this and will continue to push it until it passes."   

North Carolina is the only Atlantic coast state that allows inshore netting on anything but a small scale, and Richardson believes that by-catch and habitat destruction caused by gill nets and trawls are a problem. Several conservation groups agree with him.

"We're watching this bill closely," said Robert Schoonmaker, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance of North Carolina. "RFA is open to any ideas and suggestions about how to have a good, healthy resource. We have got to figure out how to turn things around, as they aren't getting any better. This is the only idea being proposed right now, and we support it. We want to improve the resource and believe it is a public resource that belongs to everyone in the state. If Rep. Richardson's bill passes and the referendum is allowed, everyone will be allowed to decide about it."

"We have been supportive of Rep. Richardson’s bill since he informed us of his decision to file it," said David Sneed, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina. "It is disappointing there was no support for his effort among Republican leadership, but if it accomplishes nothing else, at least it lets them know that the people of North Carolina are ready for some action. Recreational anglers and conservationists are growing tired of always being told to ‘wait until next year’ to see any meaningful reform of how our state manages its coastal marine resources. It is encouraging to have a representative (who) is passionate about saving these public trust resources before it is too late, but the reality is, we have to work through the party that is in control at this time.”

Jerry Schill, president of the N.C. Fisheries Association, which represents commercial-fishing interests, had nothing good to say about HB 1122.

"This is almost the same wording as the bill that Billy Richardson introduced in 1995," Schill said. "I was at the press conference when he announced it. The bill was given an unfavorable report by the Rules Committee back then.

"Although we’ve been assured by legislators that HB-1122 will have a similar fate, it comes at a very bad time. At a recent meeting of the House Select Committee on Wildlife Resources, the new director of the (N.C.) Division of Marine Fisheries, Braxton Davis, was introduced. Legislators talked about a “new day” in fisheries management with the new director and a new direction with hopes of eliminating or at least the softening of the “Hatfield vs. McCoys” battles in fisheries. Several legislators tried to dissuade Mr. Richardson from introducing a net ban bill, but with no luck.”