MOREHEAD CITY – Citing the action as a means to reduce regulatory discards of dead fish, the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission voted to reopen the commercial red drum harvest season effective April 28.

Commercial fishermen will be allowed to keep and sell up to four red drum per vessel per day when fishing for flounder and/or striped mullet. Because red drum is a bycatch fishery, the weight of the red drum catch must not exceed the weight of the flounder and/or striped mullet catch in a fishing trip. Flounder and striped mullet are the only fisheries where a bycatch of red drum will be allowed.

The reopening of the commercial season will likely result in harvests that exceed a yearly cap that runs from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31 each year. These overages will be subtracted from the 2008-2009 harvest allocation, and could result in stricter regulations next winter.

"It may mean the bycatch limit will remain at four fish per day throughout the fall, or there could even be a December, January, February closure," said Louis Daniel, director of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries.

North Carolina waters closed to commercial red drum fishing April 3 because the yearly harvest was approaching a 250,000-pound commercial cap recommended by the N.C. Red Drum Fishery Management Plan. The season normally runs Sept. 1 through Aug. 31.

Traditionally, the highest incidental catches occur in the fall gill net fisheries. But this year, landings in the winter were just as high, indicating some commercial fishermen may have been targeting red drum.

Red drum is a commercial bycatch fishery; it is illegal for commercial fishermen to target red drum.

Many commercial fishermen expressed concern the closure would force them to throw back dead or dying fish. Also, because the discarded fish would not be landed, they would not be counted against the overall commercial harvest.

The Marine Fisheries Commission authorized Daniel to reopen commercial red drum harvest at its April 22 meeting.

"I was pleased the division and the commission could come up with a reasonable approach to account for the bycatch that will inevitably occur in the summer fisheries," Daniel said. "However, I want to stress, overages in this year's harvest cap will be paid back out of next year's harvest allotment."

The commission also tentatively approved an amendment to the Red Drum Fishery Management Plan that, in the future, will divide the commercial red drum harvest cap into sub-seasons so overharvest in the winter months will not affect the cap for the summer and fall.