ORIENTAL, N.C. — Capt. Gary Dubiel of Speck Fever Guide service launched his boat from this small coastal fishing town. The boat ramp in the shadow of the N.C. Highway 55 bridge gave him access to fish the waters of the lower Neuse River and, via the river, to Pamlico Sound, part of the biggest system of U.S. inland waters outside the Great Lakes.
Dubiel was out for a day of fishing for speckled trout, red drum and flounder, the holy trinity for inshore fishermen in North Carolina. Dubiel earns his living by guiding clients to these great gamefish.
"It's pretty windy today, so we need to find some protected waters," he said. "Let's head to the lee of that marsh."
Dubiel slowed his boat, shut off the outboard and set down his bow-mounted trolling motor. A wind chop tickled the hull as the electric motor hummed and jig heads rigged with colorful plastic grub tails splashed down at the edge of the marsh grass. Otherwise, all was quiet.
But as the cove emerged into full view, Dubiel saw that four commercial fishing vessels had already set gill nets in his intended fishing spot and were actively fishing them in what appeared to be an attempt to encircle a school of fish.
Disgusted that his fishing spot had been mined of fish, Dubiel hauled up his trolling motor and fired up the outboard. Motoring to several other spots across miles of the sound was just as disheartening. Thousands of yards of gill nets set parallel but just offshore of the same leeward banks he wanted to fish blocked him from fishing the shoreline. On the few casts he and his clients made, they hooked only gill nets.
"How is all of this gill netting legal?" Dubiel asked. "Recreational fishermen want to come out and enjoy a day on the water, hoping to catch just a few fish. But today we've seen all of the banks blocked by commercial gill-netters, which are catching the same fish we're after."
It's an old question, and one that has become an especially testy topic after other states along the south Atlantic and Gulf coasts have enacted gill net bans. On one side of the argument are recreational hook-and-line fishermen like Dubiel. On the other side are commercial gill-net fishermen. Somewhere between are commercial fishermen who compete with gill-netters using other gear, recreational fishermen with commercial gear licenses that can also fish gill nets, and those who seek to protect other sea life from harm by gill nets.
For thousands of years, humans have fished with nets because they were the most efficient way to catch supper or earn a living. In most other parts of the world, nets, including gill nets, are still the primary means of catching fish.
A modern gill net is a web of monofilament line that is all but invisible to fish and other creatures. It has floats along its top and weights along its bottom so that it hangs upright in the water, curtain-like. A gill net can be set at the surface, along the bottom or anywhere in between, depending on where the end weights are deployed, or it may be used as an encirclement net.
A gill net catches a fish when its head penetrates the mesh but its body cannot. The mesh slips into the gill openings such that the fish cannot escape by backing out. A fish that is too small to catch swims through the mesh. A fish too large to catch usually backs off and swims away.
Serious sport fishing, which spans less than a single century, has increased hook-and-line angling pressure to the point that it exceeds commercial harvest for many saltwater species.
That competition has made gear among the most polarizing issues in allocating finfish resources. Many kinds of fishing gear — whether recreational hook-and-line or commercial nets and traps — catch, injure and kill target and non-target fish. But of all the types of fishing gear in the water, the gill net is the one most often cited as an indiscriminate killer of marine life. Opponents of gill nets say they take not only non-target finfish, but also birds, sea mammals and reptiles, including threatened or endangered species.
But are gill nets really a culprit in the decline of fish stocks or are they merely a scapegoat for overall mismanagement? While some who support an outright gill net ban in North Carolina have referred to them as "curtains of death," the true facts of gill nets cannot be stated so simply.
Improperly used gill nets can harm fisheries, like any other improperly used gear. However, a properly managed gill net fishery does no more harm than other fishing methods, including hook-and-line fishing.
The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries often plays referee in its allocations of finfish and shellfish among diverse users of those resources. The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF) distributes the harvest between those users based on biological and social data, taking emotion out of gill net fishing.
The state's Fisheries Reform Act requires fishery management plans for all major species. Those plans have been the linchpin to restoring and enhancing finfish resources without eliminating any particular class of gear or fishing method, though some have been curtailed or restricted.
Dr. Louis Daniel, the director of NCDMF, said gill nets are considered traditional fishing gear, and remain in use in the state for two primary reasons.
"Philosophically, if we go with a management strategy that takes a harvest away from any one group, such as those fishermen who prefer using gill nets, we've failed at our fisheries management goals of managing the resource for the benefit of all user groups," Daniel said. "There is also a technical reason gill nets are legal gear. If the public wants access to certain species for consumption, those species are going to come from gill nets. Certain finfish species, such as spot, sea mullet, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, speckled trout, flounder, red drum and striped bass, will be removed from the list of seafood the public uses. If you take gill nets out of the water how else are you going to fill the demand?"
Some recreational anglers have attacked gill nets as potentially harmful to fisheries and species of concern during public hearings on rule proposals, Daniel said, adding that other commercial fishing and recreational fishing practices are also potentially harmful to certain fisheries.
Recreational fishermen produce bycatch — animals caught unintentionally — resulting in discards of injured or dead, undersized, or illegal-to-possess finfish, sea turtles and birds. Birds and turtles also get tangled in monofilament lines. Rather than look at a single piece of fishing gear or method, the NCDMF assesses impact across all methods and gear to ensure a sustainable harvest for any particular species while protecting incidentally taken sea life.
"From a management perspective if you're allowed to catch a million pounds of fish, it doesn't matter the method by which you are catching them," Daniels said. "You're just reallocating the fishery."
That means commercial gill net fishermen are allowed a stake at the table along with hook-and-line anglers and recreational gill net fishermen, who can buy a recreational commercial gear license (RCGL). An RCGL allows the fishing of a 100-yard gill net and the angler can retain no more fish than the recreational bag limit for any species. Other states that allow recreational gill net use include Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Virginia.
In North Carolina, the requirement that a recreational gill net must be attended at all times has proven effective at protecting non-target fish. Daniels said a fisherman who is actively engaged is more likely to check the net often and released undersized fish. Increasing the live release of undersized red drum, in fact, spurred the attendance requirement.
Recreational and commercial anglers' gill net attendance is one way the state combats bycatch, one of the prime problems often cited in support of eliminating gill nets.
Animals besides red drum become bycatch — especially skates and rays in flounder gill net fisheries — but commercial gill net drum bycatch is enough of a concern to warrant quotas. When the quota is exceeded, as it was last year, Daniel closes the fishery by proclamation and subtracted the excess landings from the next year's quota. A commercial fisherman has an allowable daily bycatch of seven fish shorter than 27 inches in length, and those must be landed in combination with at least 50 percent by weight of certain other finfish.
Bycatch of undersized red drum and other fish is also kept in check by attendance requirements for small-mesh commercial nets and recreational nets. This attendance requirement has been extended to include some notable speckled trout fisheries in shoreline areas. While this was initially considered a great idea, it has created perhaps the greatest on-the-water conflict between gill net fishermen and recreational hook-and-line fishermen.
Rather than setting nets and moving on as in the past, commercial anglers often actively fish their nets alongside hook-and-line anglers, creating conflicts such as what Dubiel experienced in his formerly quiet fishing cove. Gill net fishermen must remain close to their nets and may drive fish or encircle fish when they're actively fishing. Daniel said this interaction, not gill nets themselves, often creates the most friction between the two groups.
Nevertheless, at least former commercial fisherman who now a 100-percent recreational angler said he no longer supports gill net fishing in any North Carolina waters. Tim Barefoot, of Wilmington, N.C., owns Barefoot Fishing Tackle and founded Fish for Tomorrow, an organization that promotes and aquaculture as a way to relieve pressure on wild fish stocks.
"We are now focused on southern flounder aquaculture and are engaged in creating oyster shell reefs to benefit that species," Barefoot said. "The species has been netted to the point of collapse. I used to fish commercially, setting sink nets (deep water gill nets) in the ocean for catching gray trout and Virginia mullet. I also commercially fished for grouper with Bandits (large electric reels with heavy line) and fished for king mackerel, so I can say I've been there and done that."
Barefoot believes other methods would produce sustainable harvests as surely as gill nets. His problem with gill nets is the bycatch tossed away as dead discards. But he also said some finfish species that were once not targeted became prime prey for commercial gill net fishermen once the waters of Florida were closed to gill nets.
"Our fall mullet run once blackened the water along the beaches," he said. "I fished the mullet run for the game fish species that follow the king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, tarpon, spinner sharks and all the others beginning in 1981 when I moved to coast.
"But by 1995, which was not long after Florida banned gill nets, the big mullet runs were over. Florida gill net fishermen came here and started catching roe mullet. Mullet roe is in very high demand. But how can you justify catching a fish during the peak of its spawn and killing it for its eggs? Nobody around here had even considered gill netting mullet before that."
Barefoot said he doesn't want to put any commercial fisherman out of business. But he goes to NCDMF's public hearings to speak against gill nets. He said he has seen red drum and sea turtles killed as bycatch in commercial gill nets set in Buzzard Bay, near the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
"There are other ways of catching fish commercially that are more discriminating," he said. "Channel nets, pound nets, traps and trotlines could be alternatives to gill netting because they would reduce or eliminate bycatch. With that type of gear, everything you catch is still alive so you can keep what you're targeting and let other species go. The thousands of red drum tossed overboard as dead discards when they can't be landed due to an exceeded quota or a bycatch limit are unacceptable to me. Dead is still dead.
"Gill-netters talk about heritage, but what about my heritage and children's heritage, which they are taking away? I want to safeguard recreational fishing for my sons, Austin and Taylor, who are 16 and 12. At age 48, my life's mostly over, but their lives are just beginning. They love to fish and I want that to continue. I would like to see them become commercial fishermen — just not gill net fishermen."
The village of Avon on North Carolina's Outer Banks has a long tradition of fishing. While vacation homes have sprouted along the Outer Banks during several recent real estate booms, the economy of Avon has relied on commercial fishing since its founding.
Tilman Gray, age 50, has been a commercial fisherman for 38 years. He owns four commercial boats and personally fishes a 25-footer and a 42-footer. His son runs another boat; a friend runs Tilman's fourth boat. He said his family has fished the local waters for more than 200 years.
"I fish gill nets, pound nets, long lines and Bandit reels," he said. "From the sound (Pamlico Sound) and the ocean, we catch 24 different species of fish. Gill netting is the most effective type of fishing. But, like an automobile in the hands of the wrong person, a gill net can also be the deadliest thing on earth."
Gray said when gill nets are fished properly, bycatch is minimal. He said even when fishing with gill nets that do not have an attendance requirement, he leaves them no longer than overnight before checking them and removing fish. He also checks them as many as three times during the day to allow live release of any bycatch such as sea turtles and red drum.
"Redfish are the political hot potato," he said. "Sportsmen like catching that species and think it should be solely for them. But only 4 percent of the population saltwater fishes recreationally, while the entire country enjoys seafood."
Like nearly every fisherman, recreational or commercial, Gray grumbles about some regulations. However, he said the NCDMF's gill net fishing regulations are effective in reducing his bycatch.
"We have a small bycatch in the sound fishery," he said. "But recreational fishermen also have bycatch. Since there are more recreational hooks in the water, the recreational bycatch impact on certain species is even greater than commercial gill net bycatch and NCDMF has statistics to prove it. The gill net rules now in place are pretty manageable, but they do have an effect on my income."
The biggest issue of all for Gray is enforcement. He said if a gill net is fished according to the NCDMF regulations, it rarely if ever catches a sea turtle, sea mammal or non-target finfish like a red drum.
"Fished properly, gill nets are the most effective means of fishing," Gray said. "Eliminating gill nets would eliminate commercial fishing on the East Coast. While a lot of commercial fishermen fish entirely with hooks and trawls, the infrastructure — trucking, fish houses, seafood markets and restaurants — depends primarily on fish caught in gill nets.
"If gill nets were eliminated, the commercial fishery would collapse and the economies of coastal communities like Avon would go down with them."