Sacrifice in the Sound: The Cost of Killing Sea Turtles in North Carolina


The North Carolina chapter of CCA is vigorously opposing the state’s request to the National Marine Fisheries Service for another 10-year Incidental Take Permit (ITP) that would allow 700 commercial gill net fishermen to kill a set number of federally endangered sea turtles and Atlantic sturgeon that get entangled in their Southern flounder nets, said David Sneed, executive director of CCA NC.

The ITP began in 2013 from a federal lawsuit settlement brought by the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center under the Endangered Species Act. The stated purpose for the permit was two-fold: To allow gill netters to pursue their livelihood without penalty in the event of “interactions” with federally protected aquatic life, and to impose take limits that would allow struggling species to recover. The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) agreed to further regulate the large mesh gill net fishery including a mandatory observer program designed to determine how many “interactions” take place. North Carolina is the only state in the country with this type of permit.

“Renewal of this permit is beyond absurdity,” Sneed said, rattling off a number of reasons. “First is the cost. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, and the DMF within it, has created a bureaucracy within a bureaucracy that wastes public resources, resources that could be used to otherwise enhance fish stocks for all North Carolinians.”

The ITP requires observers on at least 7% of all commercial trips, Sneed continued, or else the permit could be revoked, and individual licenses pulled. “Since 2013 the state has failed miserably because the commercial fishermen this permit was designed to protect refuse to allow observers on their boats.”

Using the Freedom of Information Act, CCA NC has obtained emails showing the extent of non-compliance by commercial fishermen. In 2021, out of approximately 1,500 calls to commercial fishermen to schedule observer trips the DMF was successful 14 times – barely one percent, Sneed said. The Division’s own records back this up.  The August 2021 director’s report said, “Out of 312 calls or in-person contacts during spring, observers spoke with a fisherman 34% of the time and successfully scheduled an observed trip only three times.”

To meet the minimum ITP requirements, the DMF had to pull Marine Patrol officers from their regular duty to watch a commercial fisherman from a distance. No gill net fisherman has had his permit revoked for refusing to allow an observer on board, Sneed added. “In addition, just 38% of licensed commercial fishermen filing trip tickets reported any actual landings. The numbers simply don’t add up,” he explained.

The irony of it all is gill nets aren’t even needed for commercial fishermen to reach their annual poundage quota, Sneed continued. Because a 2019 regional stock assessment shows Southern flounder are overfished and overfishing is occurring, the DMF was forced to cut the commercial and recreational quotas by 72%. The very limited harvest could be achieved using pound nets and gigs without endangering sea turtles or sturgeon, he said. From 2014-2017, the four-year average harvested by pound nets and gigs is 788,191 pounds, more than twice the Southern flounder quota for this year.

“By applying for renewal of the ITP for another 10 years, the NC DMF is acknowledging the gill net fishery’s detrimental effect on endangered species and overfished stock such as Southern founder. There are critical questions that the state has not addressed,” Sneed added.

What is the economic benefit of the $8 million anchored gill net fishery in North Carolina versus what’s being sacrificed to protect it? How is the $2 billion recreational fishing industry impacted? What will be the ultimate cost to the state’s other marine economies and the second largest estuarine system in the U.S.?

The National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to publish its decision on the ITP later this spring.

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