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Stuffed to the Gills

February 26, 2008

I didn’t go birding this weekend. After a long, exciting trip last week I decided that I was needed more at home to do laundry, move some boxes into the attic, and basically prove to my wife that I’m not shirking my domestic duties to run off and look at birds every weekend. The Golden Eagles out near Elon, or the Sandhill Cranes seen near Hobgood, or the sparrows out at Beaufort will have to wait. Besides, none of them were sure things anyway.

But I wasn’t free of the birds completely. Last evening I took part in a focus group regarding the effects of gillnets on seabird populations off the North Carolina coast. We were trying to give opinions on a questionnaire that will serve to gauge public knowledge on the topic. I didn’t know what to expect. I know that relations between the recreational fishermen and nature watchers are strained because of the ongoing ORV and beach driving issue on the Outer Banks, but this was a different issue altogether, and one I admit to being nearly ignorant about going in.

I wasn’t alone, here’s the skinny on gillnets. A gillnet is a passive means of fishing in which a monofiliment net, that can be upwards of a mile long, is anchored to the bottom of an estuarine area. The size of the mesh determine what kind of fish is being selected for. A fish is “gilled” when it swims into the mesh and is too large to pass through, when it tries to back up the gills of the fish are caught and the fish is captured. Gillnets are very effective but unselective, and unwanted bycatch is common, especially turtles and birds. Fish-eating birds are attracted to the fish struggling in the gillnets and often get caught when they dive expecting an easy meal. Loons, grebes, cormorants, pelicans, and diving ducks are often captured in these nets. The problem is exacerbated because gillnets are set and left for long periods of time. Because there is typically noone manning the net, birds and turtles often have no chance. The practice has been banned completely in Florida, and North Carolina remains alone on the eastern seaboard with lenient gillnet laws. A licensed gillnetter in NC can lay up to a mile of net and only needs to “check” it every 24 hours. And by “check” I mean they only need to be able to see the net. [edit– currently “checking” is defined as getting within 100 meters of the net]

There was some interesting discussion on the topic, and many of the birders there were surprised to hear that the recreational fishermen support an outright ban in North Carolina waters. Gillnets have a detrimental effect on local fisheries, and in states where gillnetting has been outlawed such as Florida, the fishery has rebounded in a big way. Birders can get behind this too, more fish means more birds. It was refreshing for both groups to be on the same side of this issue. In fact, an outright ban on gillnetting has been a pet project for the Carolina recreational fishing groups for a long time, and with the power of the Audubon Society behind them, together we may very well be able to lobby the state government to move on this issue. Obviously commercial fishing interests may fight it, but they’re weak and getting weaker in the state. A ban on gillnets doesn’t put them completely out of business anyway, it only forces them to modify their practices to incorporate more active netting practices, where bycatch is much smaller and less lethal to the unwanted species, be they bird, turtle or fish.

As was stated by one of the participants who was very knowledgeable about both birds and fishing practices, it’s coming down to how we decide to manage our fisheries. The days of unsustainable fishing may be coming to a close as we begin to realize the impact we have on our oceans. One hundred years ago market hunting of big game mammals and waterfowl was banned in favor of management and regulation, and the populations of ducks, geese, swans, and deer rebounded in a big way. We’re on the verge of doing that with our fisheries as well, and obviously talking about it is an important first step.

On another note, recreational fishermen and nature-lovers have been fighting a protracted and increasingly nasty battle in Carolina over beach access on the Outer Banks. It’s gotten to the point where the “us vs them” mentality has prevented any headway on this argument. It’s really bad and one only needs to visit the Outer Banks and see the anti- Piping Plover signs everywhere to realize the extent of the problem. In my mind, maybe this gillnet issue is the answer. Perhaps if fishermen and birders work together to accomplish this goal, it will be easier to work towards a sensible solution to the ORV issue. It’s perhaps only a pipe dream, but could a resolution be on the horizon? I don’t know, but suddenly I’m hopeful.

  1. Patrick Belardo permalink
    February 26, 2008 12:03 pm

    N8, excellent info on gillnets. My first thought was, “Doesn’t the caught fish get kind of nasty if it sits around in these nets?” Is it typically sold for bait or for food? I hope NC can come to a resolution on this. You seem on the right path.

    As for ORV, that’s simply just ignorance on the part of the pro-ORVers. FRUSTRATING.

  2. February 26, 2008 12:32 pm


    The fish being netted can be used for either bait or food as I understand it. It depends on the size of the net mesh. Mullet and menhaden go to bait. Flounder, spotted trout, and drum are food. The fish don’t die until they’re taken out of the water, so they just struggle in the net until they’re collected. The struggling fish attract birds which is why there is a problem. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the aftermath of this focus group, actions is taken on this issue. It’s interesting to see the light go on once everyone realized we were on the same side.

    Regarding ORVs, there’s a lot of misinformation going on out here, makes it harder to get to the facts. It looks like an impasse now, but who knows.

  3. pinguinus permalink
    February 26, 2008 1:00 pm

    Odd synchronicity – just this morning I was reading about marbled murrelets and their mortality in gillnets out west.

    It’s always nice when the enemy of your enemy can be your friend, even temporarily.

  4. Terrell permalink
    March 4, 2008 1:18 am

    Just wanted to let you know we linked to this article in the March issue of Learning in the Great Outdoors. Thanks!

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