I talked to a number of commercial anglers from North Carolina, and they all believe the resource is stable, and that their nets are not depleting the stock. I talked with a number of recreational anglers there and they all seem to think that the netters are harming the fishing and depleting the stock.
The North Carolina Division on Marine Fisheries (NCDMF) has issued a surprisingly optimistic report on the status of commercially important fish stocks. While red drum, a fish very susceptible to over harvest with nets, continue to be listed as "over fished", most other species that are net susceptible are either "viable" or as "recovering".
The last two public meetings held by NCDMF to discuss the future of nets had only a handful of recreational anglers in attendance. Of the fifty individuals there, forty-eight were commercial fishermen.
I do know that what I saw while fishing disturbed me. As we followed a trawler and watched them haul their nets, we saw hundreds of dead by-catch fish being pitched overboard. Some might say that the by-catch is minimal or that they weren't catching "sport" fish. One reader indicated that the dead by-catch would be eaten by other larger fish. This may all be true, but it bothered me to see so many dead floating fish. I suspect a large number of them rot before being eaten.
So, where are we? Who can be blamed for both the perceived and the very real decline in fish stocks? Is it a commercial fishing problem? Are we witnessing a slaughter on the water? Or is it a sportfishing perception that is being selfishly pursued?
I would propose that it is a problem from both perspectives. There are commercial fishermen who blatantly overlook the law to make a buck today - without concern for tomorrow. There are also recreational anglers who catch more fish than they can eat and who blatantly disregard seasonal and creel limits.
Heck, I can remember growing up in Florida when the object of every fishing trip was to bring home as many fish as humanly possible, only to try to find people to whom we tried to give away fish. I was, indeed a part of the problem back then.
Is a net ban the answer in North Carolina? Only time may tell. I suspect there has to be some middle ground that will allow a regulated commercial harvest and a reduced recreational limit, both aimed at preserving and improving the existing stock. Unfortunately, neither side in this issue appears to be willing to give way to a compromise.